Monday, June 11, 2012

Trying to Understand Korgas


Some of you may have read about the incident last week involving the death of fourteen individuals along the Chinese-Kazakh border. On May 30, fourteen burned bodies were discovered at the Arkangergen checkpoint in Korgas. Every summer, special checkpoints are set up to prevent the illegal harvesting of herbs, as noted by RFE/RL. The exact details of the incident remain unclear, but for background details please read these pieces by Central Asia NewswireEurasianet, RFE/RL and Tengrinews.

President Nazarbayev initially called the incident an act of terrorism. Yesterday, the Kazakh Prosecutor's Office detained the survivor of the fire at the guard post that occurred the evening of May 27-28, Vladislav Chelakh, a soldier. Chelakh will now be charged for murder.

Most of the major news outlets have focused on how the Government of Kazakhstan has responded to the incident, but I have yet to see a thorough journalistic investigation into the causes of the tragic incident. There has also been little, if any, mention of the political-economy of Korgas.

When I first think of the province "Korgas," I immediately think of the Korgas visa arrangement between the governments of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Kazakhstan. The Korgas agreements, to paraphrase a World Bank report on Central Asian bazaars by Kaminski and Mitra, promote cross-border trade by permitting residents of Panfilov district to enter China without a visa for day-long trips. The Korgas agreements also enable small amounts of cargo (less than 50 kg) to enter Kazakhstan from China duty free. The combination of a visa exemption for short-term travel along the border and waivers on duty payments promotes cross border trade. While I have never been to Korgas, I visited the international hub-bazaar Baraholka and was blown away by the depth and scale of the shuttle trade between China and Kazakhstan. 

In fact, in Kazakhstan's border regions, the shuttle trade dominates the economy. According to Mitra and Kaminski's World Bank report: 

Thanks to these government measures, cross-border trading has become the most important source of employment in Jarkent, the largest city in Panfilov district.  Conservative estimates indicate that 3,250 people work directly in cross-border trade activities.  Traders estimate that each of them generates employment for an additional one to two persons: one seller in the market and one person for warehousing or local transport.  Cross-border trade in Jarkent involves almost 20 percent of the active population, as compared to 10 percent for agro-processing, 7 percent for industry, and 7 percent for agriculture.  Combined with official data for transport, mainly dedicated to serve Korgas by minibuses and taxis, almost 30 percent of Jarkent’s active population depends on cross-border trade.  Factoring in Kazakhstan’s total dependency ratio, one inhabitant out of six in Jarkent directly depends on income generated by cross-border trade activities.

Given the preeminent role of the shuttle trade in Korgas' economy, officials in Korgas at border crossing posts (BCPs) are used to managing disputes between individuals along the Chinese-Kazakh border. 

Thus, considering the socio-economic environment of Korgas, I propose the following questions: Was there a history of disputes between the guards at the BCP and residents and/or shuttle-traders on either side of the border?  Is there any possibility that fire at the BCP in late May was the result of a minor argument that had escalated for months? Could an individual have been motivated by revenge against an official who they perceived to have acted in an unjust manner? Could the fire have been the tragic result of a local conflict motivated by ethnic, economic or social factors? If the fire was a violent manifestation of a deeper and larger conflict in the community, how can the Kazakh government and local residents work to remedy the underlying factors and reconcile relationships?

While some have labeled the incident an "act of terror," there has yet to be a thorough investigation of the incident of late May. Similarly, any credible investigation must take into account Korgas' economy and location as a hub for cross-border shuttle trade between China and Kazakhstan. While I do not know the answers to any of these questions, I propose they be asked and explored by the Kazakh authorities, local residents and international policy-makers and news analysts.

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