On the southern bank of a tiny river lined with concertina wire, half a dozen empty freight trucks are idling, waiting to enter Kazakhstan. Ken-Bulun may look like a minor border crossing between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but it is a doorway to a market of almost 165 million people – the new Moscow-led Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. And the truckers are growing impatient.
“We’ve been waiting here four hours already. And we’ll be here longer. Sometimes we’re here much longer,” said a Kazakhstani trucker. “If we don’t make a payoff … they’ll check every tire to find some excuse to keep us from getting anywhere.”
At a meeting of former Soviet countries in St. Petersburg on October 19, Bishkek agreed to establish a working group on joining the Customs Union, its most definitive move yet toward membership. Kyrgyzstan’s Moscow-oriented leadership has expressed unequivocal support for accession, despite opposition from some local business and political circles. Yet the situation on the ground suggests that the economic bloc may never fully embrace its poorer, less-stable southern neighbor. Instead, a second-tier membership may be in the offing – one that could easily end up increasing Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on Russia.
Since its launch in July 2010, the Customs Union has had an adverse effect on consumers, traders and businesses in Kyrgyzstan, observers agree. Prices for imported oil and foodstuffs from Kazakhstan and Russia have risen significantly. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan’s ability to serve as a re-exporter of cheap Chinese consumer goods to former Soviet countries has taken a dramatic hit: Turnover at Bishkek’s Dordoi wholesale market is down as much as 70 percent, according to the Central Asia Free Market Institute, a Bishkek think-tank.
Efforts to scratch out a living on re-exports persist, however. Every day, thousands of shuttle traders haul 50-kilo bags of Chinese-made goods (the individual limit) across the main Kyrgyz-Kazakh border crossing point at Ak-Jol, 15 kilometers outside Bishkek.
The area resembles a refugee camp. A minivan pulls up and distributes plastic bags full of bedding, for example, to a crowd of willing haulers, mostly older women. On the side of the road, a pile of discarded packaging smolders, releasing the acrid smell of burning plastic and foam.
On the Kazakhstani side, the shuttle traders are nearly crushed in chaotic queues as they wait for document checks. Kazakhstan is far more stringent than Kyrgyzstan in its inspection of crossers. But traders assured EurasiaNet.org that a 200-som ($4) bribe is enough to assure entry anytime.
Last year, Russian officials seemed to be of two minds regarding the southern expansion of the Customs Union. Kyrgyzstan offers little to the union economically, and its borders and customs regimes are notoriously porous and opaque.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has charged ahead with expansion plans, though, calling for an enlarged Eurasian Union of former Soviet states. On October 19, he said Tajikistan could be a future member of the Customs Union, following Kyrgyzstan. Such a development would further extend the Customs Union’s border with China. Tajikistan’s possible entry would come with a big caveat, though: many in Dushanbe expect Moscow would insist on re-assuming responsibility for patrolling Tajikistan’s troubled, 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan, through which up to a billion dollars of heroin flows northward annually.
At the Customs Union’s current frontier, there are increasing indications that Kyrgyzstan’s membership would come with restrictions. At Ak-Tilek, 30 kilometers east of Ak-Jol and once Bishkek’s main freight crossing point with Kazakhstan, a contingent of a half-dozen Kyrgyz customs officers work at a post that Astana closed during Kyrgyzstan’s uprising in April 2010.
“They closed it after the April events, and never reopened it. Now they are building a freight clearance terminal up there. They say it will be ready and open in January,” the head officer says, sounding doubtful. A construction site sits atop a ridge across the Chui River. Kazakhstan has also announced plans to improve border control infrastructure at other entry points.
If the Customs Union intends to absorb Kyrgyzstan into a true “single economic space,” without internal barriers to capital, labor, or trade, what would be the need for such facilities? A sort of second-tier membership may be in the works for the Customs Union’s southern neighbors, entrepreneurs in Bishkek believe.
Such a regime would allow the union to use its common customs and border rules to directly intervene in the black market of Chinese goods and Afghan heroin by posting customs officials at Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s frontiers with China and Afghanistan. At the same time, the Customs Union could maintain its hardened border with Kyrgyzstan, sealing the core members off from Chinese re-exports and drugs.
At Ak-Tilek, the head customs officer is fatalistic: “We don’t want to join their Customs Union, but probably we’ll have to.”
Myles Smith is a freelance analyst who specializes in Central Asia.