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Central Asia: Kazakh Wheat Ban Hits Some Neighbors Harder Than Others

Stocking up on bread in Dushanbe (RFE/RL) Officials in Kazakhstan have announced a four-month ban on wheat exports aimed at protecting consumers from the effects of global grain shortages. While stable bread prices at home are the intended goal, the move could produce the opposite effect in the region, which traditionally consumes considerable amounts of Kazakh wheat.

Such shipments are particularly high in the poorer states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where imports represent 19 and 15 percent of total consumption, respectively.

News of the ban by Kazakhstan, the world's fifth-largest wheat exporter, sent wheat prices higher on international markets. Kazakhstan produces about 20 million tons of wheat a year, with more than half of that exported to overseas markets. About 1.4 million tons is exported to Russia.

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov had warned last week about "either duties on the export of [grain] or...a complete ban."

In the announcement on April 15, officials said the halt on exports would remain in place until the beginning of September.

Masimov's office noted that the Kazakh government "adopted a decision to ban wheat exports without limiting flour exports." But such shipments are unlikely to fill the gap.

Bad Timing

Central Asia was buffeted by the harshest winter in decades, and consumers are likely to face rationed supplies of expensive bread in the spring and summer.

Much of the region's winter crops were devastated by extended periods of freezing temperatures. Countries like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were hoping to compensate for their own crop failures by importing wheat from Kazakhstan, far and away the region's biggest grain exporter.

Like its four fellow postcommunist republics in Central Asia, economic laggard Tajikistan has made efforts to hike its grain production. But Vahhob Vohidov, an economist and Soviet-era republican agriculture minister, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the country is still unable to meet its own demand for wheat. Tajikistan still needs to import 500,000-600,000 tons each year, according to Vohidov, "particularly from Kazakhstan and Russia."

"In order to provide [domestically] for the needs of our people, we would have to grow more than twice the wheat we currently produce," Vohidov adds. "In such a case as we have now, the government needs to intervene to increase domestic wheat production."

Odil Olimshoev, an economics professor at Tajikistan's National University, says the Kazakh ban makes a bad situation worse and highlights a lack of "food security."

"This is happening already, with the price of wheat and bread rising," Olimshoev says. "Now, of course, everything depends on other [wheat] exporters, but it is an indication that we need to increase wheat production in our own country."

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which like Tajikistan does not sit on major hydrocarbon deposits, farmers planted more wheat this year than in the past, according to a spokesman for the Agriculture, Water, and Reprocessing Industry Ministry, Amangeldi Abdrakhmanov. He says a wheat shortfall of around 200,000-300,000 tons was expected to meet per capita demand of about 205 kilograms.

Abrakhmanov adds that talks with Kazakhstan are continuing.

Better Prepared Elsewhere

According to Stratfor, Kyrgyzstan imports 214,000 tons of grain annually (about 19 percent of its total consumption) from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan 216,000 tons (about 15 percent of total consumption), Uzbekistan 117,000 tons (about 2 percent of consumption), and Turkmenistan a reported 2,400 tons (less than 0.10 percent of consumption). Across the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan reportedly buys some 360,000 tons of Kazakh grain every year.

Turkmen political analyst Atageldi Garaev tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the Kazakh ban will affect his country but that Turkmenistan is better prepared than its neighbors to cope without Kazakh wheat due to the Turkmen government's campaigns during the 1990s to increase domestic grain harvests.

"If Kazakhstan does not sell us grain, does not ship grain, I think in Turkmenistan and also in all the Central Asian countries it will be a difficult situation," Garaev says. "All the same, I think it will be better in Turkmenistan than in those other [Central Asian] countries."

In conversations with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, officials from Azerbaijan's Agriculture Ministry credited foresight in their planning for mitigating the likely effects of Kazakhstan's ban.

Agriculture Ministry official Sabir Valiev said wheat-storage areas, opened just last year, are currently full. "We have enough wheat in our storage areas," Valiev says. "If they impose an embargo on exports, it will be losses for them. In September, we will collect our own wheat harvest."

Similarly, the Agriculture Ministry's Mammad Huseinov tells RFE/RL that there would be no bread problem in Azerbaijan, which receives about 15 percent of its wheat from Kazakhstan. "As of January we had had 760,000 tons in our storage areas and then we imported 250,000 tons more," Huseinov says. "You will see, there will be no shortage in the country."

Analysts note that other countries around the world have already taken or are considering similar action to the Kazakh ban.

One analyst notes "a desire by governments to hold down this food inflation spiral and one way to do that is not letting any more wheat flow out of the country." Analysts also point out that Argentina has banned wheat exports, and Ukraine and Russia have reduced their wheat exports.

Rovshan Gambarov of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Erzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and Khiromon Bakoeva of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

Central Asia In Focus

Central Asia In Focus

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