Tashkent Tries to Curb Farm Exports

Tashkent Tries to Curb Farm Exports

Friday, 24 July, 2009
Reports from Uzbekistan indicate that the authorities have tightened control over exports of fruits and vegetables.

Although this meant that exports to neighbouring states plummeted in July, NBCentralAsia analysts doubt the restrictions will work in the longer term because the incentive to export – or smuggle – is so great.

The tougher restrictions were apparently prompted by attacks in and around Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan, which the Uzbek authorities blamed on Islamic extremists.

Overnight on May 25-26, a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Khanabad, a town near Andijan, came under attack. A policeman and one of the attackers were wounded in an exchange of fire, according to the Uzbek prosecution service. Later on May 26, a suicide bomber killed himself and a policeman in Andijan itself.

Tashkent said the attackers had come from nearby Kyrgyz territory, and set about digging three-metre trenches along the border with Kyrgyzstan. It also imposed tighter controls at frontier checkpoints, making it difficult for Uzbek farmers to carry produce over the border.

Since then it has become apparent that the government is specifically trying to curb exports of farm produce, quite apart from its tighter regulation of the movement of people.

Neighbouring countries like Kyrgyzstan have traditionally bought a lot of agricultural produce from Uzbekistan as it is relatively cheap for them, and the government in Tashkent has always tried to stem the flow.

This summer, things definitely seem worse than before.

State television showed several reports about farmers detained for trying to take fruit and vegetables out of the country, and offered the explanation that the authorities wanted to reduce exports so as to keep the local market well-supplied at low prices.

For the moment, it seems that neither producers nor consumers are benefiting from the policy. Instead, the middlemen who buy in bulk from the farmers and then sell produce at the market are taking advantage of the over-supply to take a larger cut of the profits.

“The middlemen know it’s very difficult for us to export right now so they’re driving down prices,” said Mirzoyusuf, who keeps orchards and vineyards in the Zangiata district of Tashkent region.

An observer in Tashkent said the differential between wholesale and retail prices of fruit and vegetables has reached about 70 per cent. For example, middlemen are buying apricots at 630 soms a kilogram and selling retail at 1,500 soms, just over 80 US cents.

The farmers lose out, but since their produce spoils quickly in the summer heat, they have little option but to accept whatever they are offered.

“What else can we do?” asked Mirzoyusuf. “It’s better to sell at any price than let it all go to waste.”

According to official figures, the Uzbek agricultural sector produces about 10 million tons of fruit and vegetables a year, of which one third goes to Russia and Kazakstan.

Economist Jahongir Shosalimov, who worked in an agricultural firm for many years, argues that imposing curbs on fruit and vegetable exports will not work, since people will just resort to smuggling.

“There has to be a way of doing this so that it’s legal,” he said. “If trucks loaded with Uzbek fruit and vegetables are avoiding customs checks, that indicates that the export regulations aren’t effective.”

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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