Visa-free travel between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan does not mean that crossing the border between the two Central Asian states is free of hassles. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz traders alike complain that convoluted customs procedures and corruption are hampering commerce.
From 2000 to 2007, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan required visas to travel between the two countries. The requirement was fueled mainly by desire to contain the spread of radical Islam in Central Asia, but the net effect was to turn what should have been relatively routine travel into a logistical nightmare for hundreds of thousands of people. For example, residents of the Kyrgyz southern capital Osh had to make the lengthy trek north to Bishkek to get a visa in order to visit a country just a short drive away.
Kyrgyzstan, a country of just over 5 million, is home to about 715,000 ethnic Uzbeks, according to 2004 government figures. Many have relatives in Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan's ethnic Uzbeks mostly reside in three southern provinces: Osh, Jalal-Abad and Batken; all abut Uzbekistan. Osh is only 50 kilometers from Andijan, the largest city in the Uzbek portion of the Fergana Valley.
"The cancellation of visas was good for those who cross the border to visit their families. I have lots of relatives in neighboring Andijan and Tashkent and we often visit each other," Ilkhom, an ethnic Uzbek from Osh, told EurasiaNet. "Now, like in the good old Soviet times, the borders are open for us. We can easily go to Uzbekistan to see our kinsfolk, and they too can come here to visit us."
But local traders complain that red tape and sticky palms now make crossing the border a problem, thus prompting some to smuggle instead of moving goods in a legal fashion. From Uzbekistan, traders bring diesel fuel, fruit, vegetables, cottonseed oil and pirated media to sell in Kyrgyzstan. In the other direction flow rice, potatoes and consumer goods imported from China.
Hundreds of traders from both countries are believed to cross the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border illegally using remote paths. "Yes, while smuggling we traders break the law, but this way we support our families and supply residents of the countries with cheap, untaxed goods," said one self-confessed smuggler.
Passengers also complain corrupt officials regularly hold them up. In most instances, delays are connected with graft. "I regularly go to Kyrgyzstan for personal reasons and often frontier officials find small faults with this and that until I bribe them. The standard fee is 1000 Uzbek sums [approximately US $0.70]," Minovar, a middle-aged woman from Andijan, told EurasiaNet. "As for me, I prefer to pay this money to avoid being abused and humiliated. You can argue with them for hours, but in the end you have two choices - either bribe them or go back home."
While the unofficial fees may sound paltry, they add up, she adds.
Azizbek Ashurov, the executive director of Fergana Valley Lawyers without Borders, an NGO based in Osh, says travelers lack a clear understanding of their rights, making them easy prey for customs officials. "More legal awareness campaigns are needed so that people know their rights, which are abused daily while they cross the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border," he said.
Ulugbeg, an Uzbek trader, buys Chinese goods at the sprawling Karasuu bazaar outside of Osh - the largest in the Fergana Valley - to later sell back home in Andijan. He says that he must factor in bribes to his cost of doing business. "In addition to high customs fees, I have to pay so-called unofficial fees," Ulugbeg said. "If you don't bribe them, they find faults with your goods and simply will have you stop your business," he said.
Duty fees are excessive, traders add, especially upon entry to Uzbekistan. In addition to bribes and excise taxes, traders have to pay a so-called unified tax, which includes customs fees and a value-added tax (VAT). The amount of the unified tax is 70 percent of the price for manufactured goods and 40 percent for food products.
A Kyrgyz customs officer, who asked to remain anonymous, said officials in many instances were bearing an unfair share of the blame for problems at the border. The primary source of delays in crossing the border was the lack of familiarity on the part of most travelers with customs regulations. "All information is available here [at customs checkpoints] on information stands in several languages," he said. "There is an open flow for goods for citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, providing they have proper customs documents."
On a political level, a higher element of tension has crept into Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations in recent weeks because of several cross-border incidents. For example, residents in Jalal-Abad Province in mid-April complained that Uzbek law-enforcement authorities were crossing the border illegally to conduct search-and-seizure operations on Kyrgyz territory. The missions' supposed intent was to break up smuggling operations.
Experts don't envision that the current regulatory framework at the border will change any time soon. A Berlin-based global corruption watchdog, Transparency International, ranks Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan among the most corrupt countries in the world. Kyrgyzstan's rating has dropped steadily over the last four years while Uzbekistan has consistently ranked near the bottom of the index.
There is no quick fix, a Kyrgyz customs official admitted. "Kyrgyzstan is a poor country and corruption is the biggest source of income for the majority of officials," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Even an ordinary official is forced to abuse his power since he has to pay his boss to maintain his employment, and his boss in his return is compelled to bribe his boss, etc. This is a vicious cycle in Kyrgyz society."
Chinghiz Umetov is the pseudonym for a Kyrgyz journalist.