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Kazakhstan/Russia: Customs Agreement Runs Into Rough Patches

Almaty, 19 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- For Russia and Kazakhstan, the first year or so of a customs agreement designed to regulate and promote trade between the two neighbours has not gone exacly smoothly.

Rather the reverse: Kazakhstan is complaining bitterly that Russia is failing to observe the tax exemptions specified in the customs agreement. And Russia has moved up tanks, helicopters and Cossack military units to the previously-unguarded border, saying that Russian territories must be preserved from drugs trafficking from Kazakhstan.

The customs agreement, signed early last year in Moscow, is called the Treaty of Four because Kyrgyzstan and Belarus are also signatories. An RFE/RL correspondent notes that the arrangement has worked smoothly between the two Central Asian neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The other participant, Belarus, is so distant that not much can be said either for or against its observance of the treaty from a Central Asian perspective.

But Kazakh officials claim emphatically that Moscow is not playing the game. The chairman of Kazakh National Customs Committee, Gani Qasymov, held a press conference in Almaty last week at which he harshly criticized Russian customs officials for taxing trucks crossing the Russo-Kazakh border. Qasymov also accused the Russians of using the Baikonur space centre in Central Kazakhstan as a point of smuggling and customs avoidance.

Qasymov's attack on the Russians followed a July 22 session of the Kazakh National Security Council, at which the Customs Committee had to endure criticism from Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who referred to "inappropriate work" by the customs service.

Qasymov asserted at his press conference that Russia was not living up to its committments under the Treaty of Four. Under that treaty, signatory countries agree to keep their borders transparent, as in the old pre-independence era, and not to impose customs taxes. In accordance with this, and with multilateral agreements between CIS countries, the Kazakhs have not placed taxation on exported and imported raw materials, including oil and gas. But Almaty says Russia still is taxing Kazakhstan for transporting oil through Russian pipelines, at rates varying between 12 cents and $17 per ton of oil. The pipeline charges were also levied in the Soviet era, but Kazakhstan feels they should have been abolished as a result of the new treaty. In addition, Almaty is angered by the taxes being placed on cross-border road transport.

Qasymov also referred to the situation involving the Baikonur space complex. Baikonur is being leased by the Russian space organisation, but Russia is at odds with Kazakhstan about the lease payments. Kazakhstan says that Russia owes about $600 million for using the facility, while Moscow denies this debt, saying that Almaty's debts to Russia for electricity and heating supply are a much greater figure.

Qasymov alleged that the incidence of smuggling of goods from Russia to Kazakhstan by Russian servicemen working at Baikonur is increasing. He said that servicemen at the Baikonur sub-facilities known as Leninsk and Turatam, as well as at the military airports Krayniy and Yuzhniy, regularly smuggle goods from the Russian Federation to Kazakhstan to sell them at higher prices.

Adding to the unsettled atmosphere was the Russian move increasingly through this year to strengthen its defences along the the long border with its "old friend" Kazakhstan. Armour, helicopters and special units were moved into position, with the Russians' giving as the reason for this the need to guard against the movement of drugs. Be that as it may, it unsettled the Kazakh side, which in turn last month increased its level of customs staffing close to the border. Earlier in the month the Kazakh National Security Council had told the Kazakh government to grant all the customs units of Kazakhstan additional functions of a military character, including border protection.

The two Central Asian countries in the Treaty of Four, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are also members of another association linking former USSR states, known as the Central Asian Economic Union, which consists of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. On 24 and 25 July, the leaders of that union Nursultan Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan), Askar Akayev (Kygyzstan) and Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan) held a summit in Bishkek. They had their problems to discuss, but customs controls were apparently not among them. That issue smoulders only between the Russians and the Kazakhs.