At the main border crossing heading from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, freight trucks line the road for hundreds of meters for a days-long wait. Cars, taxis and minibuses jostle for the remaining road. The modest bridge spanning the Chui River has been largely gridlocked throughout 2010.
Cross into Kazakhstan, and there are no queues. A crowd loiters around the gates, looking for passengers, family members, business partners. The whole scene is reminiscent more of a prison gate than an international border crossing.
Just twenty years ago, the Chui River was the trivial line between two brotherly republics of the Soviet Union. Now, a new Customs Union of Belarus-Kazakhstan and Russia (CU) intends to secure those countries from cheap transit goods, criminal activity, smuggling, and even anti-government unrest perceived, across this newly strengthened frontier, as emanating from Kyrgyzstan.
Of the 11 border crossings between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, six are currently closed, Kyrgyz customs agents say, and Kazakhstan has imposed tightened restrictions at two more.
Fifteen kilometers east at Ak-Tilek, a simple printed sign taped to a shuttered gate indicates that this key freight crossing is closed. In addition to locally produced goods, huge amounts of consumer products transiting Kyrgyzstan from China were once transited here, feeding local economies on both sides of the border.
“All that traffic is now diverted to Kordai and is completely backed up,” reports the lone Kyrgyz customs officer at Ak-Tilek. Relief probably will not come soon. “The Kazakhs say they are reconstructing their facilities, and they say they won’t open again for a long time. Probably a year.”
The only traffic is a few specially permitted haulers, running limestone from a quarry two kilometers deep in Kazakh territory, to the Kant Cement Plant, four kilometers inside Kyrgyzstan. The symbiotic relationship between quarry and plant was ideal when both opened in 1985, when this border existed in name only.
A further 17 kilometers east, at Ken-Bulun, Kazakh citizens carry home fruits, vegetables and bread. Customs officials here claim some Kyrgyz citizens cross daily to the Kazakh side for work. This modest, but locally important trade was impossible from April until October, when this bridge post was closed entirely. Vehicles are still banned.
Petrol appears to be one of the few drivers of cross-border commerce at Tokmok, which once hosted vibrant trade. Freight is now prohibited. “Last year we had 200-300 vehicles per day,” a Kyrgyz customs official says. “The Customs Union made everything much more difficult.”
Dozens of cars line up on the Kyrgyz side. “Their petrol is 15 percent cheaper, so our guys go over there to fill up,” explained the official. Kyrgyz drivers begrudgingly wait an hour or two to clear the border, to save $6 on a tank of duty-free petrol.
“Otherwise, everything is cheaper on our side. Their villagers come over to shop at the bazaar, but they only take back what they can carry,” the official adds. The nearest major Kazakh bazaar town is Kordai, 45 minutes away by minibus, and the prices there are still higher than in Tokmok.
“They made it worse for themselves with this Customs Union,” opined another Kyrgyz customs officer.
But for the people living along this increasingly restricted frontier, it seems the Customs Union has made matters worse for everyone.
Originally published at EurasiaNet.