Central Asia border bazaar counts cost of Kyrgyz unrest

By Luiza Khudaykulova
BBC Central Asian Service

image captionTrade at the Karasu market in southern Kyrgyzstan is dwindling

A year after violent unrest shook the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, traders have deserted one of the region's most important bazaars.

The giant Karasu market outside the southern city of Osh - a hub for regional goods and imports from China and Turkey - has suffered since protests led to the overthrow of the president and deadly ethnic violence.

An independent international commission is due to report on the causes of violence in the south of the country.

But what is already clear is that life has changed profoundly for people whose lives relied on the trading hub.

For Muazzam, a trader in her late 40s, the Karasu bazaar had been a godsend.

As a trained journalist, she used to earn $20 (£13) a month - just enough to buy a sack of flour to bake bread for her family. At the market, she multiplied her earnings and on a good day was making up to $100.

image captionCustomers used to arrive from all over the country

The family built a new house and bought a car. She helped her four daughters marry with a "respectable dowry", as she describes it.

Muazzam also began to travel to China and Turkey to source her goods.

"The market was a window to a whole new world," she says.

But that world changed dramatically following months of unrest in 2010.

First there were bloody protests in April, which ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Then came ethnic violence between Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities.

The violence left more than 400 dead, and about 2,000 houses were burned down.

Trade 'loophole'

Uzbekistan closed the borders, and customers from neighbouring provinces who used to come to Karasu stayed away.

Many Uzbeks left the region and the market dwindled.

It is not just traders like Muazzam who have paid the price. Many people in the south of Kyrgyzstan and the east of Uzbekistan were dependent on the Karasu bazaar.

Former teachers, doctors and journalists became traders in search of higher earnings. Numerous restaurants and cafes serving customers provided even more employment.

Taxis brought a steady flow of travellers from around the country, and lorry drivers delivered goods from abroad.

But it is the loss of traders from Uzbekistan that has had the biggest impact. Wholesale buyers used to take goods by the truckload from Karasu.

The Uzbek authorities restrict the import of goods from abroad, particularly from China, in order to promote local production. Karasu, on the border, presented a loophole and became the main shipping point for Chinese goods into Uzbekistan.

"Each trader from Uzbekistan would take at least two or three trucks from Karasu," says a Kyrgyz stall holder.

Stabilising factor

According to the Free Market think-tank in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, up to 15,000 people were working at the Karasu bazaar before April 2010.

Traders estimate that on a good day they used to have up to a half a million customers, the majority coming over the border from Uzbekistan.

As the main supply and distribution point of goods, Karasu was also an important stabilising factor in a volatile region.

The picture is very different now. The shelves at Karasu might still be full of goods, but as travel over the Uzbek border remains restricted, the number of customers has dramatically decreased.

Muazzam still works at the bazaar. She says it is now much emptier and she spends her days waiting for customers.

She is not making any profit and has to sell some goods at half the price she paid for them abroad. "If an item cost me $10, now I am forced to sell it for $5," she says.

What makes things even harder is an increase in fees traders have to pay to market authorities.

And some reports say most of the Karasu traders, struggling to pay back loans they took out in better times, are selling their own properties and cars to meet demands.