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Kazakh Inspections Take Toll On Both Sides Of Kyrgyz-Kazakh Border

Only a trickle of traffic has crossed from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan since October 10, when Kazakhstan began tightening its customs checks.
Only a trickle of traffic has crossed from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan since October 10, when Kazakhstan began tightening its customs checks.

AK-JOL BORDER CROSSING, Kyrgyzstan -- Kyyalbek Anarbaev sits in his truck here on the road between Bishkek and Almaty, as a heated political dispute plays out between senior officials in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

He is at the Ak-Jol border checkpoint north of the Kyrgyz capital, along the busiest trade route between the two Central Asian countries, where hundreds of trucks like Anarbaev's have joined a line that stretches for kilometers.

"I've been here for days," Anarbaev tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "I already have 1,000 kilometers of traveling behind me."

Only a trickle of traffic has crossed from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan since October 10, when Kazakhstan began tightening its customs checks. The line continues to grow while Kazakh officials work at a snail's pace to conduct drawn-out inspections of heavily packed vehicles.

Anarbaev says he doesn't care about the spat between Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and outgoing Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev that arose in the run-up to Kyrgyzstan's October 15 presidential election.

He is more concerned about the 10 tons of raisins in his truck since last week, when he and three other drivers with similar cargoes left for Almaty from Kyrgyzstan's southern city of Batken.

"Every truck here in our group is transporting goods that cost about 250,000 soms [more than $3,650]," Anarbaev says. "If these goods are spoiled, we're going to lose 1 million soms."

On October 16, RFE/RL's correspondent on the Kyrgyz side of Ak-Jol reported as many as 300 vehicles -- and more than 600 people -- waiting for inspections. Trucks were passing through the Kazakh checkpoint at a rate of about one per hour.

Even individuals in private cars cross slowly as Kazakh police target shuttle traders who routinely travel from Kyrgyzstan to sell food at markets in Kazakhstan.

Andrei Bobryshev, an elderly man queued up for hours at the Ak-Jol crossing, tells RFE/RL he is suffering physical pain from the long wait. "I am a pensioner, an invalid," he says. "It's hard for me to stand all of this. This is insane."

One Kyrgyz driver said his truck had moved 200 meters in three days.
One Kyrgyz driver said his truck had moved 200 meters in three days.

Wholesale Inflation

Meanwhile, at the Altyn-Orda wholesale market on the southwestern outskirts of Almaty, the disappearance of Kyrgyz shuttle traders and their cheap produce has caused prices to nearly double.

On October 17, the only Kyrgyz shuttle trader at the market is 50-year-old Khairulla, who buys peaches from farmers in Kyrgyzstan in order to sell them in Kazakhstan.

"I waited on the border for four days in order to get here today, and most of my fruit has spoiled during the wait," Khairulla tells RFE/RL. "I'm speaking by telephone to a lot of my friends who are still waiting in line to cross the border into Kazakhstan. We are losing a lot of money while we wait in line and our fruit rots."

Oralkhan, a 50-year-old shopper from Almaty, laments the lack of Kyrgyz produce at the Altyn-Orda market, which is usually full of Kyrgyz traders trying to undercut their Kazakh competitors.

"Now that prices have gone up, it is ordinary people who are suffering from this situation," Oralkhan says, noting that price hikes at the wholesale market mean higher food prices throughout Almaty.

"It would be good if our leaders could find some solution to their dispute and open the borders," Khairulla says.

Presidential Discord

Kazakhstan's government initially said its inspections were part of a "planned operation" aimed at preventing the import and export of substandard food within the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) -- a trade bloc that includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Armenia.

On October 17, Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry said the crackdown had blocked dozens of Kyrgyz drivers who were trying to cross into Kazakhstan with oversized loads or without proper documentation.

Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry, meanwhile, said that imports from five Kyrgyz dairies had been banned because of sanitary-control violations.

But many Kazakhs say they think the real reason for tightened border checks is the criticism of President Nazarbaev made by Kyrgyzstan's Atambaev before that country's October 15 election. Atambaev accused Nazarbaev of interfering in Kyrgyz affairs by supporting the leading opposition candidate, Omurbek Babanov.

"Poor people," a Kazakh woman in Almaty named Zeinab, who doesn't want her last name published, tells RFE/RL. "Impoverished people are just trying to feed their families while these presidents are standing around and laughing."

What Economic Union?

Another Almaty resident, Erlan, tells RFE/RL the border checks threaten the credibility of the EEU, which was supposed to remove trade barriers between member states. "Why have we even created a customs union, this Eurasian Economic Union, if our trucks cannot freely cross the border," Erlan says.

Back on Kyrgyzstan's side of the border, the delays have created a lucrative business opportunity for border-region residents who have opened roadside food kiosks in the midst of the traffic jams.

Adam Albekov, a Kyrgyz truck driver who has been eating from the makeshift kiosks near the Ak-Jol crossing, tells RFE/RL that his truck has moved only 200 meters in three days.

"Some of us have no way to deal with this," Albekov says. "Some drivers do not have cash to buy food, drinks, and gasoline. And some have perishable goods as cargo that has spoiled already. That is hard for people in a poor country like Kyrgyzstan."

RFE/RL correspondents report similar delays at the Chon-Kapka checkpoint and other border crossings, where traffic has been moving across the border as slowly as one vehicle per day.

Kazakh authorities haven't only been holding up Kyrgyz truck drivers and shuttle traders. Drivers from other countries who travel the so-called Silk Road trade route have also been caught up in the fracas.

Turkish truck driver Abdurahman Mekikci -- traveling eastward with a food cargo since leaving his home city of Bursa in September -- spent five days at the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border and was still waiting there late on October 16.

"Our trucks are not allowed to enter Kazakhstan," Mekikci tells RFE/RL. "I have no idea why. Nobody has explained anything to us. I'm going to contact [Turkey's] embassy in Kyrgyzstan. If that doesn't work, I will try to contact our embassy in Almaty."

When asked by RFE/RL on October 16 about Kazakhstan's border inspections and the dispute between Atambaev and Nazarbaev, Kyrgyz President-elect Sooronbai Jeenbekov said that "each country, no matter what, must deal with other countries with respect."

"Only then can issues be resolved," said Jeenbekov, a political ally of Atambaev. "We have been doing exactly this and we will keep on doing that in the future. This situation will be resolved."

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service at the Ak-Jol border crossing and RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondents Nurtay Lakhan and Ainur Alimova in Almaty
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