voters will decide the fate of a new constitution is obsolete and open to 
abuse, analysts say.  By Jipara Abdrakhmanova in Bishkek 

KAZAKSTAN: ONE LAW FOR THE RICH  People offered nothing when they were evicted 
from their homes last year are angry that wealthier home-owners are to be 
recompensed.  By Yaroslav Razumov in Almaty 


CHINA’S ROAD INTO KYRGYZSTAN  The Kyrgyz truck drivers and market traders who 
have benefited from trade routes to their eastern neighbour are less 
enthusiastic about the growing Chinese role in the local economy.  By Ulugbek 
Babakulov in Kyrgyzstan 


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The system by which voters will decide the fate of a new constitution is 
obsolete and open to abuse, analysts say. 

By Jipara Abdrakhmanova in Bishkek 

As voters in Kyrgyzstan prepare to go to the polls to approve or reject a new 
constitution, analysts say the system used for compiling the electoral roll 
remains deeply flawed. 

While there is no suggestion that the current authorities plan to fix the 
October 21 referendum, most analysts interviewed by IWPR agreed there was 
plenty of scope for anyone with an interest in skewing the result to do so. 

Kyrgyzstan’s past record is not encouraging – notably, two rounds of 
parliamentary elections in early 2005 produced so many allegations of 
irregularities and wrongdoing that they sparked a mass protest movement which 
culminated in the ousting of President Askar Akaev in March that year. 

Two areas, in particular, worry analysts to whom IWPR has spoken – an outmoded 
electoral registration system based on residence records, and the likelihood 
that many of the hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz nationals working abroad will 
miss out on a chance to vote. 

Because the constitution contains new provisions for parliamentary elections, 
voters in the referendum will be asked in addition to approve a new electoral 
law to implement the shift from a constituency-based system to proportional 
representation, where seats will be filled from candidate lists according to 
how a given party has performed nationally. 

The referendum was announced by President Kurmanbek Bakiev only a month in 
advance, on September 19, when he also revealed the version of the constitution 
he would like to go through. 

This followed a Constitutional Court ruling five days earlier that the current 
constitution dating from December 2006, as well another version from the month 
before, were null and void. This forced the country to revert to the 2003 
constitution introduced in 2003 under President Akaev.

Constitutional reform was one of the main demands put forward in a series of 
protests since March 2005, when a Bakiev came to power.

In November 2006, after coming under pressure from opposition demonstrations, 
the Kyrgyz parliament changed the constitution to strengthen the role of 
parliament and limit the president’s authority. However, a month later, 
parliament passed another version of the constitution which restored the 
president’s powers, causing an outcry amongst civil society activists who 
argued that it gave the head of state too much power. 

In their ruling, Constitutional Court judges found that changes to the rules of 
parliament - introduced expressly so that legislators could pass constitutional 
amendments without referring them to the court - were not legally valid.

Critics of Bakiev say the constitution he is now proposing leaves him and his 
successors with excessive powers, and is not conducive to creating a more 
democratic society.

Experts on the electoral system warn that the validity of the referendum which 
will decide this crucial issue could be marred by abuses such as multiple 

In Kyrgyzstan, people are registered to vote in the administrative district 
where they have a “propiska”, a record showing their place of residence. In 
Soviet times, the system was used to control population movement. 

These day, large numbers of people move around the country or go off to work 
abroad. The complexities involved in shifting one’s propiska means that many 
migrants do not bother to do so. Voting stations will therefore be left with 
many ballot papers in the name of long-absent voters. 

Yelena Voronina of the non-government group Interbilim said that since her 
organisation began monitoring elections in 1998, it has identified cases where 
unclaimed blank ballots – assigned to either absentees or dead people - have 
been filled out by unscrupulous officials to help the incumbent authorities win.

“There were dead souls and discrepancies on the electoral roll,” she said.

Voronina said similar problems could reappear in the forthcoming referendum.

“It seems the current authorities are blindly repeating these practices without 
learning the lessons from unpleasant experiences of the past,” she said.

She believes that basing voter registration on residence criteria in a country 
with such high levels of internal and external migration is wrong.

“I am against voting with the propiska system; we should move away from this 
legacy of the Soviet Union,” she said.

By some counts, there are up to a million expatriates – a fifth of the 
country’s population – mostly in Russia and Kazakstan either as seasonal 
workers or more permanent residents.

The sheer numbers of potential voters and the short advance notice given for 
this referendum mean that even those who have the right papers could find they 
are denied the right to vote abroad.

In Russia, where the largest number of expatriate Kyrgyz nationals are based, 
polling stations will open in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and Novosibirsk, while in 
Kazakstan, it will be possible to vote in the capital Astana and Almaty, the 
largest urban centre. Kyrgyz nationals living far from these major cities will 
be effectively excluded. 

Alikbek Jekshenkulov, a former foreign minister, doubts Kyrgyzstan’s small 
diplomatic missions will have the capacity to cope.

“There are usually about five to six diplomats working in our missions abroad, 
although the embassy in Russia is an exception. So it is unrealistic to expect 
the staff of these diplomatic missions to manage such a flow of people,” he 

The deputy speaker of parliament, Erkin Alymbekov, warns that “the entire 
labour migrant vote represents an opportunity for abuse by the administration, 
especially since there isn’t a mechanism to guarantee fair voting or to observe 
the process abroad”. 

Another factor that will reduce the expatriate vote is that many migrants are 
living and working illegally, so they will be reluctant to reveal themselves 
for fear the Russian or Kazak authorities will take note and deport them.

Emil Imakeev, head of the external labour migration department of the Kyrgyz 
state committee for migration and employment, said only 10 per cent of the 
Kyrgyz citizens in Russia enjoy full status, whereas the figure for illegal 
immigrants is “beyond all calculation”. 

Some argue that despite its flaws, the residence-based system is the only 
workable way of registering voters at the moment.

Nina Mukhina, head of information at the Central Election Committee, CEC, said 
the propiska system was the only effective way of preventing multiple voting on 
a massive scale.

“If we were to get rid of the propiska [system], mechanisms would have to be 
introduced to replace it. Otherwise, instead of two-and-a-half million voters, 
we could end up with a list twice as long, since many voters have a propiska in 
one place but live somewhere else,” said Mukhina. 

In any case, Mukhina said, there was already provision to people to cast an 
absentee ballot. All they have to do is go back to the place where they are 
recorded as living and pick up the papers. 

But critics say it is difficult and expensive for people who are by definition 
economic migrants to make such a trip.

Juma Abdullaev, whose Zamandash group helps labour migrant and other diaspora 
members, said his organisation had offered to help set up mobile polling 
stations, as employed in the 2005 election in which Bakiev became president, 
but the CEC had rejected the idea. 

“The Central Election Commission told us that a decision had been taken not to 
deploy mobile polling stations this year,” he said.

Political analyst Svetlana Moldogazieva, of the CFG legal consultancy, says 
that despite the criticism of the current system, no viable alternative has 
been put forward.

She also believes pressure groups are making a fuss about potential hitches for 
their own ends. 

“I believe certain NGOs are exaggerating this issue - criticising the principle 
of voting by residence registration and thereby alarming the public merely to 
draw attention to themselves,” she said.

Nevertheless, some election officials admit that current voter registration 
practices are in need of improvement. 

CEC member Jyldyz Joldosheva told the AKIpress news agency on October 12 that 
she had noticed irregularities on electoral lists earlier this month when she 
visited the southern Osh region. Eligible voters were omitted, while deceased 
people were still listed. 

“On October 7, there was a local election for Osh city council, and large 
numbers of voters did not get on to the main electoral roll. Additional lists 
of up to 300 people at a time had to be compiled in most constituencies,” she 

“Moreover, in nearly every constituency the names of deceased people had been 
included. This is wrong, not only because it’s in breach of the law but also 
because it’s highly unethical.”

Joldosheva blamed the local mayor’s office for the mix-up, and warned that it 
would have to do better when it came to the referendum.

In a recent television interview, another CEC member, Akylbek Sariev said, 
“Problems with the voting lists certainly exist. Sometimes there are dead 
souls. It can’t be rule out that it will happen again. I agree that there are 
deficiencies in our work. 

“But if everyone [in the CEC] approached their duties responsibly, we could 
avoid this problem. Unfortunately, there are individuals on the local election 
committees who do not carry out their obligations honestly.”

Jipara Abdrakhmanova is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.


People offered nothing when they were evicted from their homes last year are 
angry that wealthier home-owners are to be recompensed.

By Yaroslav Razumov in Almaty 

A decision to compensate well-off residents of Almaty, Kazakstan’s largest 
city, when their properties are demolished has provoked accusations of 
preferential treatment. People living in run-down areas of the city received 
nothing when their houses were knocked down last year.

Some 2,000 buildings on the slopes of the mountains that form the city’s 
backdrop are likely be demolished, including luxury homes that dot the 
Butakovka, Chimbulak, Medeu, and Bolshaya and Malaya Almatinka gorges. City 
authorities say the majority of owners are likely to receive compensation. 

The Kazak government established a commission last month to look into 
demolishing buildings located in nature conservation zones on the outskirts of 
the city. The commission - set up to address concerns that the buildings could 
be causing environmental damage - will determine whether they were built before 
or after the area was given national park status, and will then decide who 
receives compensation. Owners who built their homes after the cut-off date will 
not qualify.

Prime Minister Karim Masimov told a meeting of the commission on September 21 
that it was time to take decisive but fair action on buildings that flouted 
nature conservation legislation. 

“We will insist that the law is equal for everyone - there are no big or little 
people here,” said the prime minister, according to the Khabar news agency.

Almaty’s mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov told a September 28 press conference that 
up to four billion US dollars could be set aside to compensate people who lost 
their homes. He insisted, however, that there would be “no dealing” with those 
who put up homes once the conservation zones were created. 

But when the prosecutor general’s office confirmed on October 9 that 
compensation would indeed be paid to those who bought land plots and real 
estate in the designated zone prior to its special status, it made it clear 
this would account for 90 per cent of the properties which will be subject to 
demolition orders.

The generous and comprehensive deal that seems to be on offer contrasts sharply 
with how people in less affluent parts of the city have been treated when they 
have been told to leave their homes. Critics of the offer say it is manifestly 
unfair for taxpayers’ money to be used to compensate wealthy home-owners when 
the residents of Shanyrak and Bakay got nothing for their demolished homes.

These settlements appeared on the fringes of the city in the Nineties, as 
people arrived from other regions as well as from the Kazak diaspora seeking 
work in the country’s commercial centre. At the time, the areas they settled 
were administratively part of the rural region surrounding Almaty, but in 1999 
the city government acquired these areas, and residents of Bakay and Shanyrak 
found themselves dealing with officials who wanted the land for redevelopment 
and refused to admit that they had any right to live there. 

Demolition orders followed for homes in Bakay and Shanyrak, and by last year 
the dispute had escalated into a stand-off, with sporadic battles between 
locals and the police who were drafted in to protect demolition squads. 

More than 100 homes were torn down, and there was no talk of compensation. 

A former resident of Shanyrak told IWPR how angry he was at the stark 
difference between the deal the mountain villa owners are getting and the way 
people like him were treated.

“We were literally chucked out into the street and they demolished our home and 
other structures,” said the man, who did not want to be named. “Nobody even 
mentioned compensation. We wouldn’t have said no to it, even a small amount. 
And now you have billions of dollars going to a few hundred, maybe a thousand 
families. How is that fair?”

This man said some of his former neighbours were homeless, while he had found 
shelter with relatives outside Almaty.

“Some of the former residents are completely homeless. We don’t know what to do 
– it’s impossible to get either a residence permit or a stable job,” he said.

Seytkazy Mataev, chairman of the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan, said there 
should be no double standards – if the people of Shanyrak and Bakay received no 
compensation, then neither should the owners of the elite housing conveniently 
close to the Chimbulak ski centre and the Medeo ice rink.

“I think it’s wrong to pay such sums out of the taxpayer’s pocket,” said 
Mataev. “Why should we be paying for them to break the law? It’s forbidden to 
build in that special protection zone. That’s not what happened in Bakay and 
Shanyrak – there it was demolition and no compensation.”

Political scientist Mikhail Sytnik advances the theory that some of the luxury 
home owners may themselves have lobbied for the environmental review, with the 
idea of obtaining compensation to cushion an expected crash in property prices.

He believes that the government commission will conclude that the houses did 
breach environmental regulations, but that “it isn’t the villa owners who are 
to blame but the officials who issued the permits ten or 15 years ago”.

Whatever the politics behind the compensation offer, the environmental concerns 
seem real enough. 

Local environmentalists say Almaty is at risk from mudslides as the mountain 
slopes are disturbed. They also argue that annual average temperatures have 
risen, citing unusually mild weather that lasted through January in these 
normally snowbound mountain areas. The warming will, if it persists, lead to 
flooding and landslides, they say.

Almaty is a city at bursting point, with a population of at least 1.5 million 
living in an area with infrastructure designed for 400,000. A construction boom 
in recent years has seen property prices soar and spare land gobbled up.

In April this year, President Nursultan Nazarbaev suggested that pressure on 
the city centre could be alleviated by prohibiting further construction there 
and instead creating satellite towns around the city.

However, such urban planning schemes are likely to bring problems of their own 
– the evictions in Bakay and Shanyrak were prompted by similar visions of a 
decentralised city in which high-quality housing schemes will replace older 
residential areas.

Yaroslav Razumov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.



The Kyrgyz truck drivers and market traders who have benefited from trade 
routes to their eastern neighbour are less enthusiastic about the growing 
Chinese role in the local economy. 

By Ulugbek Babakulov in Kyrgyzstan 

As China's commercial presence extends into Central Asia, the caravan routes 
which once formed the Silk Road are again bustling with traffic. 

Only the methods for delivering goods have changed on the dilapidated 
300-kilometre road leading from Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan to the Irkeshtam 
border crossing, and on into western China. Caravans of camels carrying silk, 
spices and precious stones have been replaced by convoys of trucks loaded up 
with Chinese fridges, televisions and clothes – all destined for south 
Kyrgyzstan’s bustling markets. 

Some of the goods will find their way into nearby Uzbekistan, where the 
authorities have clamped down on Chinese exports to try to protect local 
industry. Here the demand for cheap consumer goods has created a thriving 
smuggling trade to circumvent official restrictions.

With the imports have come economic and social change, as China – sealed off 
from Central Asia in the Soviet period – has become a regional player, and its 
merchants a common sight at Kyrgyz markets.

I traced the journey made by people and goods all the way from Irkeshtam, past 
snow-capped mountains and desolate steppes, to the giant wholesale market at 
Karasuu, where I also took a look at trade across the closely-guarded 
Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.


The border post at Irkeshtam lies at high altitude in the shadow of towering 
peaks of up to 7,000 meters. Not even the hardiest shrubs can take root in the 
bare, weather-beaten ground here.

Only a few years ago, the border was closed for 20 days each month because 
conditions are so harsh. Back then, the only accommodation available was the 
numbered trailers scattered around the settlement and occupied by drivers and 
porters awaiting deliveries.

Now, the transient population of Irkeshtam has swelled to some 2,000 porters, 
drivers and officials. 

Several mud-built hostels sit along the road, with ten dormitories of five or 
six beds and a café in each. It’s hard to find a vacancy in these places, and I 
was offered a bed for the night in a storeroom which a chambermaid hastily 
cleared of bread.

Most drivers still prefer the basic conditions of the trailers, and many of 
these have also been turned into makeshift shops, selling soap, washing powder, 
cigarettes and alcohol.

Until recently, the steady flow of Chinese exports along the Irkeshtam-Osh road 
brought work to thousands of locals as loaders, long-distance truck drivers, 
company representatives and catering staff.

The Chinese drivers would unload their 60 or 70 ton cargo at the terminal and 
reload it onto several ten-ton Kyrgyz trucks to carry it to the markets in Osh 
and Karasuu. 

But since the Kyrgyz authorities granted permission to the Chinese trucks to 
drive straight into the country just over a year ago, many of them now deliver 
goods direct from the factory to the marketplace. Meanwhile, trucks with Kyrgyz 
number plates cannot compete as they are still not allowed into China.

While this may be more efficient for the Chinese traders, Kyrgyz delivery 
drivers complain there is no longer enough work for them. Nor is there any need 
for the hundreds of people who used to come to Irkeshtam to help load the 

I was invited into a blue trailer with the number 86 daubed on its side to talk 
to drivers from Osh.

One driver, Alibek, told me that his colleagues no longer look forward to the 
arrival of 40 to 50 Chinese trucks each day.

“This [change to the rules] means that every day, around 200 to 230 of our 
drivers are no longer wanted,” he said. 

Demand for loaders at the Irkeshtam terminal has also dropped – there are now 
just two squads of 30 people each, where there were once 30 teams.

The sudden drop in employment in the area has caused anger among locals, many 
of whom blame Chinese drivers for depriving them of opportunities to work and 
support their families.

An association of over 500 truck drivers, called Aidoochu or “Driver”, has 
written to Osh governor Jantoro Satybaldiev calling for Chinese trucks to be 
banned from driving across Kyrgyzstan. 

Aidoochu’s head Nadyr Toktorov told me that drivers planned to block the road 
to stop Chinese lorries carrying on with their journey through the country.

He warned that if the situation continues as it is, Chinese trucks will soon be 
the only traffic on the road - which he argued is already the case on another 
highway connecting the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek with the western Chinese city of 
Kashgar via the Torugart crossing.

His colleague Alibek Jamankulov added that trucks from southern Kyrgyzstan used 
to drive to the Torugart crossing, where there was plenty of loading and 
delivery work.

“Now that road is serviced completely by Chinese vehicles. Soon the same thing 
will happen here, and then everyone who makes a living off this road will be 
forced to look for work in Russia, or find another job,” he said.

Some of the loaders have threatened to rob the Chinese trucks.

“If we find ourselves out of jobs, with no means of subsistence, then we’ll rob 
the Chinese trucks. We’ll do it in the pass, in the mountains, wherever it’s 
easily done,” said one.

I asked Guljamal Joroeva, spokeswoman for the Osh regional government, whether 
the authorities were aware that some resentful locals were threatening to 
obstruct the Chinese traffic.

She told me that at the last meeting of the regional administration, the 
governor instructed police to ensure that Chinese trucks had unrestricted 


Day and night, convoys of heavy trucks bump along the serpentine Irkeshtam-Osh 
road, which is little more than a dust track that scales dizzying heights and 
plunges into deep gorges. 

There are no petrol stations or maintenance facilities for long stretches, and 
fuel is sold in canisters at the roadside.

Recently, however, a number of Chinese companies have begun to rebuild the road 
and develop the infrastructure, and hotels and rest points are springing up 
along it.

Some locals are suspicious of this foreign-led development.

A border guards officer at the Kyzyl-Suu checkpoint, who wished to remain 
anonymous, suggested that China was preparing for a peaceful “conquest” of 

Right now he said, the highway was “not the Silk Road, but a path for donkeys”.

“But soon the Chinese will lay asphalt, and then nothing will stop them. Even 
now, you can see that over the last half-year the number of Chinese vehicles 
has increased significantly, while our Kyrgyz vehicles have greatly decreased 
in number.”


In place of the bandits who once robbed unsuspecting merchants along the road, 
the modern-day drivers are hit official and unofficial levies imposed by 
traffic police, customs officers and transport firms.

Those Kyrgyz drivers who have not been displaced by Chinese truckers who drive 
the whole route are hired on a casual basis. They told me they have to pay the 
freight firms in order to be assigned a job in the first place. 

They receive 18,000 soms – about 490 US dollars, for transporting 15 to18 tons 
of cargo, but out of that they have to pay the freight company a fee of 1,000 
soms, or 27 dollars.

“If you don’t, you’ll sit there forever and won’t get a load,” Alibek laughed 

Delivery company representatives at the Irkeshtam-Dorozhny customs point – 
where 40 firms operate with four to five employees - refused to comment on 
these claims. Zakir Khiyazov, a representative of the firm Al Hajji Roma, said 
it paid drivers 480 dollars for delivering a consignment to its destination. 

“The cargo is mainly despatched by Chinese traders. We load up to six vehicles 
a day with cargo,” said Khiyazov.

Kyrgyz drivers said they paid 50-100 soms (1.50 to three dollars) to employees 
of the border, customs and control services just to be allowed to reach the 
loading-up site, and there are more payments on top of that. 

“In total, drivers at the terminal pay an average of 1,200-1,500 soms [up to 40 
dollars] just to get as far as the terminal and take receipt of a load,” said 
Shuhrat Jurabaev, a driver from the Karasuu area.

Once on the road, more “taxes” await the truckers. 

“The traffic cops find many excuses to extort money, and if you don’t pay them, 
they won’t leave you alone. So it’s much easier to give them 50 soms and get 
home quickly,” said local driver Alisher Usmanov.

At Gulcha in the Alai district, which lies 150 km from the city of Osh, I saw 
two policemen hanging around outside the settlement’s main shop, flagging down 
passing traffic. 

One of the officers stopped a Chinese truck and asked the co-driver for 
identification and the freight documents. The man explained that their 
documents had been withheld from them at an earlier checkpoint and offered to 
pay 50 soms to be allowed to pass. The policeman at this improvised checkpoint 
agreed to let them go, but demanded four times as much. 

The drivers had no option but to pay up after the officers threatened to hold 
them up indefinitely.

When I remarked to the policemen that I understood they didn’t stop foreigners 
on the roads, one of them replied, “Of course we stop them, and we demand more 
from them than from the locals.”

Bribery on the road has become so commonplace that officials no longer even 
have to ask for the money. On the approaches to Osh city, I saw one Kyrgyz 
driver drive up to a police checkpoint. Instead of stopping, he simply slowed 
down, rolled down his window and tossed 50 soms at the policemen waiting by at 
the side of the road.


After a long, uncomfortable and expensive journey, drivers arrive at the 
markets in Karasuu or in Osh itself, where they unload their cargo.

Karasuu is Central Asia’s largest market, where goods are sold wholesale to 
traders who will take them to shops and local bazaars in the region. Buyers 
from all over Uzbekistan and Tajikistan come to stock up on goods from row upon 
row of stalls which stretch as far the eye can see.

Lying just three kilometres from the Uzbek border, the Karasuu market sprawls 
over 15 hectares, and has an estimated daily turnover of half a million 

The busiest days are Tuesday and Saturday, when up to 60,000 people come from 
neighbouring countries to buy and sell at this bustling hub. Locals serve them 
hot food, tea and coffee, and many turn their homes into bed-and-breakfasts.

In recent months, the growing community of Chinese expatriates has meant that 
they have started to sell their goods themselves, rather than hiring locals to 
do it. One local policeman told me that around 5,000 Chinese salespeople now 
worked at the market - an increase of almost 20 per cent on last year.

Some locals welcome this new, expanding community, including the many Kyrgyz 
students who take jobs on stalls to earn some cash and also to practice their 
spoken Chinese – now commonly spoken at the market, alongside Russian, Uzbek, 
Tajik, Kyrgyz. 

Third-year student Uulkan spends her mornings studying at Osh State University 
and her afternoons selling goods on a market stall run by a Chinese trader.

“Working with the Chinese is a wonderful chance to marry a respectable and 
wealthy man,” she confided.

Chinese traders at the Karasuu market now have their own security agency. Zamir 
Rahimov, a guard for the company, insists that Chinese traders have created 
more work for the locals.

“Let’s put it bluntly, a lot of the local population live at the expense of the 
Chinese salespeople,” he said. “For example, one Chinese person at the market 
feeds three locals - the seller, as well as the loader and the handcart porter.”

But others believe the influx of Chinese traders has harmed the local economy. 
Businesswoman Leila Japarova, who brings wholesale goods from the Chinese city 
of Urumqi to sell at Karasuu, said the number of Kyrgyz traders there has 
dropped as a result of competition from the Chinese.

“This is because the Chinese bring their products and sell them themselves. 
Naturally, they sell much cheaper than our businessmen, because it’s easier for 
Chinese people to get goods from their own country,” she said. 

I met a young Chinese merchant who has been coming to Karasuu for many years 
now. He said the government in Beijing encouraged entrepreneurs and helped them 
promote their businesses. 

“It is prestigious to be rich, and poor people are not liked [in China], 
although the government tries to help them as well. But there’s a lot more 
chance of being respected if you’re rich,” he said. “The government issues 
loans on soft terms to Chinese people engaged in commerce abroad, at very low 
interest rates.”

I asked Chinese merchants to respond to claims by some locals that they are 
stealing their jobs. 

“A fish seeks deeper water, while a man seeks a better place,” was one of the 
more cryptic responses.

A Chinese merchant from the Artush, a town in the Xinjiang-Uighur region in 
China's west, said he and his compatriots were not pushing anybody out of the 

“We even make their trade easier,” he said. “The local Kyrgyz people buy goods 
from us much cheaper than from Kyrgyz intermediary purchasers, and their 
merchants don’t even need to travel to China. They get the goods right here and 
take them off to Russia. So our presence here benefits them,” said the 
merchant, who spoke Kyrgyz.

Ernis and Gulmira Jainakov, a Kyrgyz couple who hold Russian citizenship, are 
an example of the so-called “new Kyrgyz”. They belong to the relatively wealthy 
20 per cent out of the 600,000 to one million migrants who have gone to Russia 
and Kazakstan in search of a better life. 

The Jainakovs return to their home city, Bishkek, from time to time to visit 
their teenage children and stock up on wholesale goods from Chinese traders at 
the Dordoi market, which they then sell in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

A Kyrgyz government decree to ban foreigners from working as market traders was 
interpreted by many as an attempt to attract this class of successful 
expatriate entrepreneurs back home. However, at the last moment, the 
authorities postponed the measure until January next year. 

Ernis Jainakov laughed and looked bemused when I asked him what he thought of 
the abortive attempt to ban foreign traders from Kyrgyzstan.

“Firstly, it’s unlikely that Kyrgyz traders will return home, as there are no 
conditions for finding decent work. Secondly, our places here are occupied by 
the Chinese. What’s the difference if they go on to trade in another country? 
We’ll still lose out. Thirdly, it’s unlikely that the Kyrgyz authorities will 
give up this chance to levy fees from foreign traders,” he said, adding, “And 
we’re already quite well-established in Russia.”


It is believed that 80 per cent of the Chinese goods sold at Karasuu will 
smuggled into Uzbekistan, where there is high demand for cheap goods.

An army of Uzbek traders travel thousands of kilometres to Karasuu from all 
over their country. Selling the goods allows them to feed their families, so 
they continue to defy the risks of being caught - which include having their 
goods confiscated or being beaten and assaulted by Uzbek police and border 

I travelled right up to the Kyrgyz side of the frontier to investigate the 
smuggling trade - which the Uzbek authorities have tried to stamp out by 
flattening thousands of homes in the border zone through which goods could have 

A tangled barbed-wire fence marks the boundary between the two countries. 
Rubble lies scattered over the dusty earth scarred with tyre-tracks. Not far 
away, tractors roll past a recently constructed red-brick building.

One Uzbek woman wept as she told me her family home been torn down by the 

“In exchange for our demolished home, we were given 400 square metres of land 
and 5.5 million sums [4,850 dollars] to build a house. But that isn’t even 
enough to build a shed,” she said.

This drastic action has made little difference, for as long as corrupt border 
guards are happy to let traders pass in exchange for a cut, Chinese goods will 
continue to find their way into Uzbekistan.

I actually witnessed border guards taking money from people to cross – those 
carrying goods paid 1,000 soms, about 80 US cents, while those without baggage 
paid half that amount. 

Officially, the Kyrgyz authorities deny there is a problem. Baitik Babataev, 
deputy chief of police in Karasuu district, dismissed any suggestion that 
Chinese imports made their way into Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan.

“Do you really think that if we knew that there were smuggling routes 
somewhere, we wouldn’t stop such violations? It’s simply impossible in our 
district, at any rate,” he said. 


While Uzbekistan tries to stem the flow of imports, Kyrgyzstan is hosting new 
ventures that will see Chinese goods manufactured on its own soil. 

In the last year, Bishkek and Bejing have established several joint ventures to 
build homes and factories in Osh, and four brick factories have already been 

The mayor of Osh, Jumadil Isakov, told me that Chinese consumer goods will be 
assembled at a 48,000 square metre industrial park now under development.

“We intend to start assembling components here, a sort of technology park for 
assembling Chinese furniture, fridges, irons and other goods,” he said. “If the 
quality measures up, then we’ll sell the finished products in Russia, Turkey 
and other countries.” 

The mayor welcomes such joint enterprises, which he said will mean more jobs 
and better infrastructure for the city. 

But he also noted that in many of the new factories, the skilled jobs were 
being filled by Chinese workers, while locals were only given more menial 

According to Isakov, Chinese engineers seemed reluctant to pass on their skills 
to Kyrgyz co-workers. “For example, the brick factory has been working here for 
two years now, but they don’t say how the equipment works, and do everything 
themselves, and they don’t teach our workers the secrets. I’m constantly asking 
local workers whether they can work independently, and they tell me the Chinese 
don’t teach them anything.”

Some local workers expressed irritation at the perception that imported Chinese 
labourers were prepared to put in longer hours for less money. This meant that 
Kyrgyz were unlikely to be employed on the new sites, they said.

“I’m not afraid of working, but I see Chinese workers in Osh working 12 hours a 
day with one day off a month. And they receive miserable wages. They live in 
unsuitable housing… and get around 100 dollars a month, but they still put up 
with it,” said Abakir Zairov.

Zairov is a plasterer by trade who recently returned home from a stint in 
Yekaterinburg in Russia, where he earned around 3,000 dollars in six months. 

“I don’t think I’d be able to keep pace with that [Chinese] work tempo, and 
there’s no way I’d work for that money,” he said.

Nevertheless, Zairov felt that the Chinese workers were filling a vital gap in 
the labour market left as local tradesmen continued to flock to Russia and 

“We don’t have enough finishers or bricklayers of our own. They’ve all gone off 
to Russia or Kazakstan to work,” he said, adding that “It’s in our interests to 
bring in more locals, and if we pay them well, they will of course agree to 

Ulugbek Babakulov is an independent journalist and IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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