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Central Asian Neighbors To Feel The Pain As Kazakhstan Suspends Wheat, Flour Exports

Kazakhstan is among the 10 largest wheat producers in the world. (file photo)
Kazakhstan is among the 10 largest wheat producers in the world. (file photo)

Kazakhstan's decision to ban wheat exports is really bad news for the country’s poorer Central Asian neighbors, which get some 90 percent of their wheat imports from their northern neighbor.

One of the world's major wheat growers, Kazakhstan also imports relatively inexpensive wheat from Russia to use domestically and to resell to other countries.

But Russia, the world’s largest wheat exporter, temporarily banned grain exports to its fellow members of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Armenia -- in March.

The Kazakh Agriculture Ministry now says it will limit wheat and flour exports to 1 million tons and 300,000 tons, respectively, for three months starting on April 15. It’s not clear if the restrictions will be extended beyond that date.

The Russian government said it was suspending wheat, rye, barley, and maize exports until June 30 to “protect the domestic food market in the face of external constraints” amid harsh Western sanctions over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow’s decision means that Kazakhstan -- the largest buyer of Russian wheat in the EEU -- has temporarily lost access to relatively affordable agricultural products it got duty free.

Just two or three weeks later, Kazakhstan’s flour-milling companies began to raise alarms that they were running out of supplies and going out of business. The Union of Grain Processors of Kazakhstan urged the government to halt exports.

The director of a Kazakh grain-processing firm tests the quality of a batch of wheat at a facility near the village of Novoselovka. (file photo)
The director of a Kazakh grain-processing firm tests the quality of a batch of wheat at a facility near the village of Novoselovka. (file photo)

It led the country’s Agriculture Ministry to limit exports to address the grain “deficit” in Kazakhstan created by Moscow’s export ban, officials said.

According to First Deputy Agriculture Minister Aidarbek Saparov, the Russian ban “forces Kazakh millers to urgently switch to the purchase of grains from domestic growers,” who sell their crops at a higher price than Russia.

It also comes at a time when prices for wheat and other food products have risen to record highs globally because of the war in Ukraine, which is also a major producer of wheat and corn.

Poorer Neighbors

Tajikistan annually buys nearly 1 million tons of wheat from Kazakhstan, which accounts for up to 94 percent of Dushanbe’s grain imports.

The immediate impact of Kazakhstan’s decision on Tajikistan hasn’t been immediately known. But if Kazakhstan prolongs the curbs beyond June, Tajikistan -- the poorest country in Central Asia -- will face severe food shortages.

Bread is the most important staple in Tajikistan, where some families say they only have “bread, tea, and sugar for breakfast.”

The government said it was working out a crisis-management plan to prevent any unwarranted price hike for food products and to support the most vulnerable, but details of the plan haven't been made public.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon urged people on April 1 to stock up on food. Rahmon made no mention of the war in Ukraine but said “humanity is facing an extremely difficult year, especially in terms of food security.”

Rahmon called on Tajiks to work hard to have a good harvest and to store up to “two years’ worth of food.” Rahmon has made similar calls during crises in the past, including during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some Tajiks took to social media to express their anger and accused the government of failing to create jobs, provide decent salaries, and “always leaving the people to fend for themselves.”

“With a salary of 800 somoni [about $64] a month, I can’t feed my family for a month, and how are we supposed to stock food for two years?” one social media user wrote.

“I just bought a 50-kilo sack of flour for 325 somoni and that is a quarter of the joint monthly income for me and my husband,” said Rahima, a resident of the northern city of Khujand.

Her family of five consumes “two sacks of flour a month” to make bread at home, “because buying ready-made breads is a luxury not everyone can afford,” she explained.

“We don’t have land, apart from our small backyard, and actually many people in Tajikistan don’t have land to grow crops and become self-reliant,” Rahima said.

Neighboring Uzbekistan, the most-populous country in Central Asia with about 34 million inhabitants, is the largest buyer of Kazakh grains.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Uzbekistan imports about 35 percent of its domestic consumption needs of wheat, mostly from Kazakhstan.

A cargo ship is loaded with grain for export in Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea port of Aqtau. (file photo)
A cargo ship is loaded with grain for export in Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea port of Aqtau. (file photo)

Kazakhstan’s curb on exports coincided with Uzbekistan’s plan to buy 600,000 tons of grain from abroad -- mostly from Kazakhstan -- to ensure domestic food security.

That includes a planned purchase of 100,000 tons of wheat from its northern neighbor between April and July, Tashkent said on April 4.

Uzbekistan’s own wheat production is expected to decline in the 2021-22 market year, which ends on June 30. The output is estimated to be around 5.5 million tons, down from 6.2 million the previous year.

Turkmenistan imported $15.1 million worth of wheat in 2020, mainly from Kazakhstan with $12 million.

During a visit to Ashgabat in October 2021, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev pledged to “increase the supply of agricultural products, primarily wheat and flour,” to Turkmenistan on “mutually beneficial terms.”

The hike was expected to help Ashgabat tackle the chronic shortage of foodstuffs -- especially flour -- that has plagued Turkmenistan in recent years. With the current supply shortages, however, it remains to be seen if Kazakhstan will be able to deliver.

Kyrgyzstan, a member of the EEU, gets about 40 percent of its imported wheat from Kazakhstan. Bishkek’s main grain supplier is Russia.

“We had decreased the purchase of grains from Kazakhstan because it’s 30 percent more expensive than [Russian wheat],” Rustam Zhunushev, the head of the Union of Grain Producers of Kyrgyzstan, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service.

Despite Moscow’s ban on grain exports to EEU states, Kyrgyzstan hopes to purchase 450,000 tons of Russian wheat in the coming days.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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