Kazakhstan new land of opportunity

June 20, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

KHORGOS, Kazakhstan -- He, too, had heard that life offered a better chance in Kazakhstan, so he crossed over from China on a desolate, sandy stretch where the lights of the border towns were only a faint and distant glow.

He had moved under cover of a thick, moonless night. He had yanked apart the wires on the border fence and climbed through in a place where no one could have heard him because of the rushing spring waters of the Khorgos River nearby.

But the dogs got his scent and in minutes the Kazakh border patrol swept in and had their intruder.

This was, in the third year of Kazakhstan's independence, business as usual along the country's eastern border. To the right was China's Xinjiang province. To the left was the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan -- the new land of opportunity.

For decades the border guards had quite a different mission, to keep spies out -- and malcontents in. But the upheaval that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has changed their main task. Now they guard against illegal immigrants, against those who seek a better life for themselves by moving to the former Soviet Union. There are thousands of Chinese in Kazakhstan today (and thousands more in Russia). Some are legal residents; many more are not. They are farm laborers, construction workers, poachers, cooks and waiters. Most, though, are traders and they're making money as they never have before.

The Kazakh government appears to be stunned by the influx. By any measure, Kazakhstan is a poor country, and life is hard here. Yet it offers possibilities that are unavailable in much of China -- to make money, to live in better housing, to build businesses.

"There's good and bad here, but it's a lot easier to turn money over. That's the main thing. It comes quicker, and there's more of it," said Mahmet Niyaz, a 32-year-old trader at a bustling market in Almaty, the capital, who came to Kazakhstan on a three-day transit visa in April and never got around to leaving.

Mr. Niyaz, a Muslim who belongs to an ethnic group called the Uighurs, sells calendars, sweaters and men's pin-striped suits, all from China. The suits cost about $9.

"People have more money here, and they buy more here," he said.

"Life's good. It's better than in China," said Ma Hassan, a former theater worker in the city of Urumqi who now sells Chinese toddlers' clothes, sunglasses, bras, belts and umbrellas in Almaty.

But the Kazakhs, ingrained with the Soviet hostility toward trading and selling, see more than the traders there now. They look to the east and see a billion such people -- in their worst nightmare, a billion would-be traders, savvy in the ways of money and commerce.

They are trying to keep that nightmare at arm's length, with police sweeps through the markets, a tough new visa policy, harassment of traders and a beefed-up border patrol.

"Every night we're running after them," said Gen. Bulag Zakiev, commander of the Border Guards.

Moreover, many thousands of Chinese enter Kazakhstan legally and then overstay their visas, or come through Russia and filter down here.

Lt. Col. Valery Zabolotskikh said that, in 1989, before the Soviet Union fell apart and everything changed, only six people crossed the border legally at Khorgos. Last year 700,000 crossings were recorded going from one country to the other -- and this was at only one transit point.

There are 58,000 resident foreigners living legally in Kazakhstan, the majority of whom are Chinese.

"But we don't really know how many Chinese are here," said Erkin Utegenov, chief of criminal investigation in the Interior Ministry. "They spread through the city, they have connections already and they stay illegally. And we have a lot of problems with criminals."

Several Chinese traders have been murdered by rivals in Almaty and Karaganda. The suspects are now out of reach back in China, said Mr. Utegenov.

Government is wary of China

The government of President Nursultan Nazarbaev is extraordinarily wary of the whole issue. On the one hand it is trying to be careful not to offend China, but on the other it wants to avoid being overrun by immigrants.

The government has closed Chinese markets in Almaty on "ecological" grounds, and about 3,000 traders were expelled or persuaded to leave last year. Police make regular document checks -- although problems are more often resolved with a bribe than with a deportation order.

The official government line is that the Kazakh people have become more discriminating buyers in the past few years and that the demand for cheap Chinese goods is dying naturally. But the evidence doesn't seem to back that up.

The one market where Chinese people can still operate fairly freely is the Bolshaya Barakholka (Big Junk) bazaar, on the distant outskirts of Almaty. Shoppers have to take two different buses to get there, but the place is jammed. This is where Mr. Ma and Mr. Niyaz have stands, and it seems to be where all of Almaty comes to buy its clothing.

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