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Central Asia: Forgers Show Increasing Interest In Currencies

Prague, 18 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The countries of Central Asia have mostly adopted their own currencies since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The transition in the last few years to exotic-sounding currencies named variously the som, the sum, the manat and the tenge, has not always been easy.

Turkmenistan's manat has suffered 2500-fold devaluation since its introduction in late 1993; Kazakhstan had to switch to the tenge amid a bout of hyperinflation which had brought chaos to the economy; the Uzbek sum still trades at three different rates -- an official domestic rate, another for foreigners, and yet another on the black market.

Still, the initial difficulties of the transition have been overcome, with the Kyrgyz som and the Kazakh tenge proving the most popular currencies at Central Asian street markets and exchange offices because of their easy convertibility. Anyone can without problems buy U.S. dollars or German marks for these two currencies.

But this has had its shadow side. Both those currencies, particularly the tenge, are now the target of money forgers in the region who appear to be steadily gaining in professionalism.

The tenge is not easy to forge convincingly, as 14 levels of authentification are incorporated into the genuine notes during printing on high-tech machinery purchased in England in 1993.

Despite that, RFE/RL stringers report from the Kazakh capital Almaty that Kazakh police are concerned at the number of counterfeit notes in circulation in the west of the country, obviously stemming from a gang of expert forgers.

A number of people are to go on trial shortly on counterfeiting charges after a lengthy investigation by the western office of the Kazakh State Investigation Committee. The case has been officially described as the country's most successful example of forgery in recent years.

Specialists of the Kazakh Investigation Committee, after a thorough inspection of the faked bank notes, concluded that they had been made by a highly qualified computer programmer. As a result, the owners of color printers, scanners and photcopiers in Kazakhstan have had to register with the authorities in order to ensure that forged tenges will not be made with their help.

Some experts say that a counterfeit workshop might in fact be located not on Kazakh soil, but in neighbouring Russia, or in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. They note that forged notes were detected on three different occasions at Customs points in Uralsk City, on the Russo-Kazakh border. In addition, last weekend three citizens of Uzbekistan were detained in Almaty for having in their possession about 80,000 forged tenges, in the form of 1000 and 2000 tenge bank notes.

Further investigations are underway, but police say hard facts are very difficult to establish. Those arrested with fake money usually stick to the story that they obtained the forged cash unknowingly, when they sold dollars or other currencies on the black market to unknown dealers.