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Central Asia: Uzbek-Kazakh Border Closed In Possible Dispute Over Cash Flow

Uzbekistan recently closed its border with Kazakhstan in a measure officials imposed because of what they said was the threat of mass poisoning from food products brought in from Kazakhstan. As RFE/RL reports, however, the closure may have more to do with an effort to stop the heavy outflow of cash.

Prague, 9 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The new year was marked in Uzbekistan by the authorities' decision to close the border with Kazakhstan indefinitely. The move was made on 28 December to prevent Uzbek shuttle traders from entering Kazakh territory and to avoid what Uzbek officials characterize as the threat of mass food poisoning caused by products imported from Kazakhstan.

Presidents Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan yesterday reportedly discussed the matter during a telephone conversation. A bilateral commission involving high-ranking officials discussed the issue as well, but no results of the talks have yet been announced.

Nurmat Otabekov works in the department of sanitary epidemiology in Uzbekistan's Ministry of Health. He told RFE/RL: "We have now entered the season favorable for the epidemic spread of heart [and] respiratory diseases and influenza. This is the reason why we have taken such a measure to tackle the issue. Another motive is to stop low-quality food from entering Uzbekistan."

Otabekov said the decision is purely preventive, noting that no outbreak of any infectious disease has been observed recently. "It is obviously not important to observe [mass poisoning before taking any action]. Alcoholic drinks imported to the Republic of Uzbekistan -- all of them -- are not checked by appropriate [sanitary] commissions. This is why we cannot guarantee [their high quality]," Otabekov said.

A woman interviewed by RFE/RL at the Uzbek-Kazakh border questioned the logic behind such moves. "I am from Samarkand," she said. "When the roads are opened, it is the only opportunity for us to feed our children."

According to Anna Walker, an analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, the closure of the border is, indeed, likely to increase poverty in Uzbekistan. "It's likely to increase the hardship of those who are already facing difficulties following the partial closure of many of the bazaars in Uzbekistan. And it's unlikely to have a great effect on the many people who will be able to cross the border either by bribing customs officers or by other means. So it seems unlikely to have the desired effect," Walker said.

Increased import taxes imposed by Uzbek authorities last summer sparked public protests before leading to the closure of most food markets throughout Uzbekistan.

A decree passed in May governing the importation of goods into Uzbekistan imposes a single 50 percent customs duty on imported foodstuffs and a 90 percent duty on nonfood items, based on the value of the goods.

With this measure, the government says it was seeking to control the outflow of hard currency prior to the introduction of free currency convertibility, which had been promised by the end of the year, and to regulate and simplify the country's customs duties and taxes.

But some observers say they believe the real aim may be to eliminate individual importers and merchants and to place the country's import and retail trade in the hands of a small monopoly.

Observers say the border closure appears to be an effort to stop a heavy outflow of cash that began after the tough new customs rules. Since the Uzbek government imposed high import tariffs, they say, a lot of people in the border regions have been crossing over to buy consumer goods from Kazakhstan.

This is the opinion of Alisher Ilkhamov, executive director of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Uzbekistan. "It was probably closed due to financial reasons, because the government and the budget are not receiving significant amounts of hard currencies. Many people are spending their hard currencies in neighboring countries. According to some reports, they spend up to $3 million U.S. per day," Ilkhamov said.

According to the Kazakh customs service, up to 30,000 Uzbek citizens have been crossing into Kazakhstan daily.

But Walker added that there may be two other possible reasons for the border closure. "It could be an attempt to stop smuggling of fuel and cotton, both of which are important sources of hard currency for the government but for which traders can receive higher prices in Kazakhstan. And it could also be an attempt to boost domestic industry -- the production of consumer goods -- which people have been traditionally buying in Kazakhstan," Walker said.

Another recent Uzbek decision on border issues highlights the government's will to block -- momentarily, at least -- border trade with its neighbors.

Late yesterday, Uzbekistan removed the cement blocks that constituted the Uzbek side of the bridge connecting it to the Kyrgyz town of Karasuu in the Ferghana Valley.

Karasuu Mayor Abdusatar Shoyatov told RFE/RL that Uzbek officials refused to compromise when he tried to negotiate with them. "The Uzbeks closed the custom post, and they have removed [blocks] on their side of the bridge," Shoyatov said.

Karasuu district officials say the Uzbek side was motivated by the same reasons for the closure of the Uzbek-Kazakh border: to avoid the potential food poisoning of the Uzbek population.

Adam Zaikirov, head of the Karasuu district administration, stressed that the Kyrgyz authorities are opposed to the move, adding that it will complicate the lives of ordinary people.

About 200 protesters from both sides gathered today near the bridge to protest the decision. According to some estimates, about 20,000 people use the bridge each day to cross the river, including Uzbek merchants.

On the Uzbek-Turkmen border, meanwhile, two border points out of three were closed last year by Turkmen authorities. Here again, the decision obstructs the activities of local residents who earn their living mostly through border trade.

The move was made after Turkmenistan accused Uzbekistan of helping Boris Shikhmuradov, a former Turkmen foreign minister and opposition leader in exile, enter the country illegally last autumn. Shikhmuradov was later detained in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, and sentenced to life in prison for his alleged involvement in a 25 November failed assassination attempt on Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

(Khurmat Babadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and Tyntchtykbek Tchoroyev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)