Not long ago, Russia was one of the primary markets for Kyrgyzstan’s agricultural goods. Then came the Eurasian Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, which removed customs checkpoints between the three in 2011. Kyrgyz produce was suddenly on the other side of a wall and exports to Russia plummeted from 195,000 tons in 2008 to 7,500 tons last year, according Kyrgyzstan’s Agriculture Ministry.
Now Russia, having banned produce from the West in response to sanctions over its support for rebels in Ukraine, needs Kyrgyzstan again. Kyrgyz officials are eager to help fill Russian stomachs, but unsure just how much they can abruptly increase exports.
On August 19 local news agency KyrTAG.kg quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov telling a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Customs Union’s regulatory body, “We are lifting all restrictions on the supply of Kyrgyz fruits and vegetables. In case of unjustified barriers, contact me – we will assist.” Kyrgyz authorities also hope that Russia will terminate restrictions on meat imports.
While some locals fear Russia will export its inflation and shortages to Kyrgyzstan, officials are losing no time pointing out the benefits of closer cooperation with Russia to a reluctant population.
The Agriculture Ministry hopes to restore exports to Russia to the their pre-Customs Union peak (an increase of 2,500 percent), Zhumabek Asylbekov, head of the ministry’s Food Supply and Marketing Department, told local news agency Vechernii Bishkek on August 20.
Economics Minister Temir Sariev sounds more realistic, declaring that doubling exports to Russia is doable. “It’s time to win the market, make contacts, find good partners. If it happens, then we can double our agricultural production tomorrow; there are already conditions for this,” KyrTAG.kg quoted him as saying on August 21.
Sariev called on Kyrgyz producers to unite into trade associations. “If we do not unite, alone we won’t be able to supply products to Russia in large amounts. Consolidation is necessary to interest partners from the Russian Federation,” Vechernii Bishkek quoted him as saying on August 21.
Swiftly expanding exports is not easy, however. Though Kyrgyzstan consumes only about a quarter of the many kinds of fruits and vegetables it produces, the rest is not necessarily suitable for export, Deputy Economics Minister Danil Ibraev warned on August 19. Ibraev told Vechernii Bishkek that Kyrgyzstan does not have the capacity to meet Russian demand, that the country lacks the long-term storage, processing and transportation infrastructure necessary. He said that 40 percent of Kyrgyz fruits and vegetables currently rot in the fields.
The Russian food ban and Kyrgyzstan’s response has left mixed feelings in local bazaars.
“It’s good news for farmers and wholesalers. In Russia, the goods are much more expensive than here. [Farmers and wholesalers] will be able to earn more money,” said Perizat Abdyrasulova, 24, a vegetable seller at the Ak-Emir bazaar in Bishkek. She said, however, that she fears the exports will increase local deficits and that prices will rise.
Bakyt Kazanbaev, 52-year-old meat seller at Ak-Emir told EurasiaNet.org that he’s not too happy about upping exports to Russia. “Meat is already expensive, and there are already people who can’t afford it. If we start exports in large amounts, prices will rise even more,” he said.