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.
When Russia banned many Western agricultural products last week in response to Western sanctions, it created a $9.5 billion hole for other countries to fill. Immediately, officials across Central Asia optimistically announced plans to help plug the gap.
But sudden shortages created by the ban have all but guaranteed to increase inflation in Russia, a major food importer. And Central Asians will suffer likewise because their expected jump in exports will leave fewer products available to local consumers, thus driving up prices at home.
All this highlights a paradoxical mix of opportunities and risks for Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union whose economy often feels ripple effects from Russia. Aside from the immediate pros and cons of the food ban, Kazakhstan is clearly spooked by Russia’s deepening confrontation with the West over its support for rebels in Ukraine, concerned about the fallout from a slowing Russian economy.
Kazakhstan’s response to the food ban paints a picture of a junior partner struggling to navigate the shoals between an increasingly isolationist Kremlin and its own ambitions of greater global integration.
Georgia has a surplus of farmland and not enough farmers to work it. The Indian region of Punjab has too many farmers and not enough affordable land to keep them occupied. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that Punjabi farmers are increasingly being found tilling Georgian soil. As the Guardian's Jason Burke reports, agents in Punjab are starting to do a brisk business in Georgian land deals. From his report:
The sun dips, the cattle low as they are driven back to the farms and a telephone rings with a Bollywood soundtrack tone. Tujinder Singh is calling the sarpanch – the elected head – of Manochahal, his native village 30 miles from India's western border.
The conversation – about crops, prices, weather and mendacious middlemen – is like a million or so similar early-evening calls placed by farmers across south Asia. Except that the land that Singh is now tilling is in Georgia, the small mountain nation in the Caucasus.
Singh, 38, is one of a new wave of farmers pioneering one of the world's more unlikely migrations. During a recent spell as a cook in Düsseldorf, Germany, he heard about thousands of acres of fertile land on former collective farms lying fallow in Georgia for want of manpower.
The contrast with his native Punjab, with its surging population and high land prices, was striking. So two months ago, he and three friends flew from Amritsar to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to seal a deal for the lease of 50 hectares. Back for a short break and some tandoori chicken, Singh said he was very happy with the move, even if he remains slightly vague about the geography of his new home.
"We are paying $950 [£580] for each hectare for a 99-year lease. You'd not get much for that in the Punjab. I'm not sure if the farm is in the north or south but it is sort of over by Turkey and Armenia," he said.
Last week, Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister set some ambitious goals for the country’s farming sector: On July 20, Omurbek Babanov told hundreds of local officials that Kyrgyzstan must become a “regional leader” in agriculture, not just fully meeting domestic demand, but exporting 90 percent of its produce to cover “the needs of neighboring states.”
For now, however, this vision looks like a mirage in the summer haze.
Due to this year’s high temperatures and low rainfall, “Kyrgyzstan could lose between 50 percent and 70 percent of its crops” and “the country’s livestock industry may have absolutely no feed this winter,” an industry news website, AllAboutFeed.net, said in a July 19 report, citing unnamed experts.
The Agriculture Ministry expects this year’s domestic wheat production to cover slightly more than half of Kyrgyzstan’s needs, predicting a harvest of 650,000 metric tons versus an estimated food-security minimum of nearly 1.1 million tons plus another 177,000 tons in feed. This would be close to a 20 percent drop in production from 2011, when, according to the National Statistics Committee, the wheat harvest totaled nearly 800,000 tons.