Market traders in Kyrgyzstan are aghast at a decision to stop them trading across the border with China because of concern about the possible spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS.
The Kyrgyz government ordered on May 12 the indefinite closure of the country's border crossings at Irkeshtam and Torugart. Kyrgyz and Chinese citizens were given 10 days to return home through the checkpoints before they were finally sealed. Air travel between the two countries has also stopped and tourist trips to China cancelled.
Kyrgyzstan's health ministry had earlier recommended the measure so as to fall into line with Kazakstan, which closed its border on May 9. Other regional states, such as Russia and Tajikistan, which have land borders with China have taken similar precautions.
The Bishkek health ministry says there have been no SARS cases in the country so far. People coming back from China will be monitored, and anyone displaying SARS-like symptoms will be quarantined.
Only one case of a Kyrgyz citizen contracting the disease has been reported. On May 6, a city government official in Beijing said a Kyrgyz man had been hospitalised with SARS but had recovered. But Kyrgyzstan's deputy health minister Lyudmila Steinke said the patient - who has now returned home - was never diagnosed as having the disease.
Merchants dealing in Chinese goods are worried that the expected slump in cross-border trade will destroy their businesses and damage Kyrgyzstan's economy.
IWPR contributors visited wholesale markets in the capital, Bishkek, where many Chinese traders come to sell their wares. Most are ethnic Uighurs from China's western province of Xinjiang. The biggest market is Dordoi, which draws buyers from Russia as well as Kyrgyzstan's Central Asian neighbours.
At his stall selling fabrics from Shanghai and Beijing, Isradin Abduriev is typical of those who work at the Dordoi market, and he's worried by the prospect of closed borders. He is an ethnic Uighur but lives permanently in Kyrgyzstan.
"If the next shipment of goods does not arrive it will be hard times for me, because I'll have nothing to sell. That will mean losses," he said.
A local businessman at the same market, who requested anonymity, told IWPR that he has been trading with China for 10 years now, and all of his six children are working in the trade.
"We bring in cheap toys from China. The border closure is a disaster for us, since we are running out of goods and we will still have to pay rent and taxes for the time that we don't work," he complained.
At Jibek, another bazaar where Chinese fabrics are on sale, market director Symbat Esenalieva, is equally unhappy. "Our market was not doing well even prior to this, and closing the borders could make things worse for our merchants. In 15 days we will run out of goods," she said.
Market traders will be left without anything to sell, but will still have to pay out for their running costs. IWPR was told that the cost of keeping a stall and paying for a license and warehouse space comes to more than 100 US dollars a month.
Anatoli Novikov, who runs the trade union for Dordoi market workers, is worried about the wider ramifications for regional trade. "We all get Chinese clothes and footwear, and merchants from Russia, Kazakstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan come to buy from here. China feeds us," he said.
He is concerned that once access to Chinese goods is closed off, the cost of imports by private "shuttle-traders" bringing in goods from elsewhere will increase, resulting in a falling exchange rate and accelerated inflation in Kyrgyzstan.
"Even the merchants who visited Turkey and Iran last week claim that the prices of many local goods have risen by three or four dollars, and the reason is that the Russians are buying up everything. Naturally, our merchants will raise their prices in order to cover their expenses," he said.
Deputy foreign minister Jeenbek Kulubaev is unrepentant. "Of course, our trade relations will be slowed down and shuttle traders will not go to China for goods, but we should not leave the borders open just because of that," he told IWPR.
Many traders are clutching at straws. Some hope that the government will let goods transit the border, if not people. Others want to subsidise frontier medical services, which screen people for quarantine.
"Goods will be smuggled anyway. People will attempt to bring in goods by avoiding the main roads," warned Esenalieva.
Many of the Chinese nationals trading at the market say they are unafraid of contacting SARS, and that they are quite happy to go to eastern China to buy goods. According to Esenalieva, the ethnic Uighurs' lack of concern comes from their belief that they cannot catch the disease because unlike the Han Chinese, they don't eat "exotic animals".
By Cholpon Orozobekova and Asel Sagynbaeva,
IWPR's Reporting Central Asia, May 21, 2003