The Turkmenistan’s (Futile) Push for Trade Supremacy

Being on the other side of the Karakum desert, when it comes to trade Turkmenistan tends to be grouped more with Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan while the other Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) form another group. While both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan share borders with Turkmenistan, their population centers are in the eastern parts of their territory. Of course, this doesn’t stop goods from traveling to Turkmenistan (and on to the Caucasus and Turkey) from China. However, the power-house bazaars of the region are all located closer to the Ferghana Valley, which stretches though southern Kyrgyzstan, northern Tajikistan, and eastern Uzbekistan. This makes sense, as the proximity of Ferghana to China, and its dense population, makes it an ideal hub for the distribution of goods to the north, south, and west of Asia.

Nevertheless, the capricious autocratic ruler of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has decided to open “the largest bazaar in Central Asia” according to the sycophantic Turkmen media. The article on government’s website about the opening of the Altyn Asyr Bazaar gives an account of Turkmen economic life that is full contraction to what many outside observes report:

Emphasizing that market relations were dynamically developed, and the consistent efforts were taken to guarantee abundance of food products in our country, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov noted that the measures to be taken would also promote trade contacts at the international level. [sic]

The website of an expatriate Turkmen human rights group gives a more skeptical view of events, while RFE/RL tries to offer a balanced account of the opening. Both of these reports mention that more than half of the bazaar is empty and express skepticism that the venture will fully take off.

I am left wondering what the opening of Altyn Asyr will mean for the people working in the country’s main bazaar, the Tolkuchka,

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The Rise of the Bazaatropolis?

My good friend and fellow economic anthropologist JR just brought my attention to this article in the Wall Street Journal that outlines the increasing importance of mega-airports their adjacent urban hubs in globalized business. The article uses the term aerotropolis to signify these new amalgams of city life and transit centers, where the vitality of the cities themselves is often subordinate to the airports they serve. The author rightly points out that this signals a different kind of spatial arrangement of people and goods, but doesn’t explore what this means outside of the economic sphere. I would be interested in knowing more about the social transformations engendered by the creation of aerotropoleis and whether these changes were as globally uniform as the physical structures described.

This also got me to thinking about the ways that the urban areas around Central Asian bazaars and free economic zones have been transforming in recent years, adding new residential buildings, entertainment services, and storage facilities next to the bazaars and away from the city centers. While on a much smaller scale than the development profiled in the WSJ article, the lived experiences of many traders are centered on the outskirts of large Central Asian cities, spending almost all their time at various bazaars and the concomitant service areas that have sprung up immediately around them. These bazaatropoleis may prove to be just as important in integrating global economic supply chains as the aerotropoleis touted by the WSJ.

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China’s Western Horizon

Working with my Chinese tutor here in Bishkek has given me some new perspectives on the way that trade functions on the other side of the border. Although my tutor is working primarily as a language instructor, he is also involved in other import/export business. Sometimes our lessons veer away from Chinese grammar (and the frustrations I have with keeping characters straight in my mind), and end up revolving around the topic of intra-China trade logistics or  the details of cross-border contracts and economic alliances.

Luckily, though him I am already making some contacts in Kashgar with whom I should be able to work. I hope to spend my time there as a helper in export firms and (maybe/hopefully) even making deliveries for such firms to the Kyrgyz border.

In light of these developments, this article in RFE/RL caught my attention. It outlines how the PRC government supports Central Asian regimes (and their human rights abuses) in order maintain the flow of hard currency and fossil fuels into China. It’s an interesting read, and the comments are also worth a gander as a reflection of US reactions to China’s increased global influence as they span the gamut from reasonable critique to insane anti-China xenophobia.

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Library Woes

The National Library of the Kyrgyz Republic is located less than ten minutes by foot from my apartment here in Bishkek. It’s a building with an imposing staircase and a marble façade. When I moved into my flat I was excited that I would be so close to this repository of valuable information.

For people who are based in the United States, the workings of a post-Soviet library can be daunting. For one, libraries in this part of the world are generally closed stacks. That means that patrons are not allowed in the part of the building where the books and periodicals are located. It’s not possible to simply browse library resources. Instead, one must search through card catalogs to find either books or newspaper and magazine articles. In theory, every newspaper article is classified by subject and author, then cards are written for each of these categories and filed into the catalog. After looking up which articles you would like to read, you submit a form to the librarians and wait for them to bring them to you in the reading room. The cataloging of articles sounds like it would be an overwhelming task until you take into account that most local newspapers are weeklies, and such a task could be the work of one or two people.

A Kyrgyz professor at the American University of Central Asia told me about how useful the library’s article archive had been for a project he had been working on. Feeling hopeful after hearing of his experience, I obtained a patron card and familiarized myself with the catalogs. After I spent half an hour of hunting in vain for useful resources, kind librarians pulled a few card catalog drawers for me to peruse. I spent the rest of the afternoon going through these cards, trying to find articles on the regulation of bazaars, and corruption in the Customs administration, and connections between the informal economy and the political elite.

I know that these articles exist. When I buy newspapers here to read about current affairs, these issues are acknowledged, if not always explored. The media in Kyrgyzstan has been active since the years following perestroika. However, in the library I found less than ten articles during the past five years. I questioned librarians why my search was yielding so few results. My questions were met with blank stares, and then having the librarians repeat that there must not have been other articles written.

This is where cultural differences felt particularly acute for me. As a scholar from the West, I have expectations that people employed in information industries will be critical of media and their own organizations’ role in the proliferation on information. The National Library is staffed primarily with middle aged workers, many of whom have presumably worked there since the Soviet era. Soviet institutions had a marked tendency to actively overlook shortcomings in work flow and employee performance. When such things did occur, it became standard practice to deny their presence.

As such, my questions about the gaps in information were met with a denial of the information’s very existence. I would have been understanding has the staff explained that they did not have enough people to maintain the database or that it was not a priority of the director so scare resources had been used to maintain the reference collection. However, telling me something that we all knew was untrue left me with a feeling of absurdity. I took a few minutes to ask if there were any other way to find the articles I was hoping for and then resigned myself to the reality that it was a futile exercise. I thanked the librarians and went home.

If anyone reading has experience with post-Soviet libraries and can suggest another tack, please share your expertise.

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Exporting Technologies of Management In Order to Import Goods

Just before leaving for India in December, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a conference in Bishkek on efforts to standardize customs procedures across Central Asia. The project, called the Tulpar System, is a program spearheaded by the German development agency GIZ that brings together representatives from the five Central Asia governments so that they can cooperate to make international trade run more smoothly.

Currently, in order to import and export commercial goods legally in Kyrgyzstan, one must make sixteen separate trips to more than ten bureaucratic offices, each having their own paperwork and regulations. There is no centralized information center to tell you how to go about this or what stamps and notaries are necessary. As a result, most goods are cross the borders illegally. Businesses that are compelled to follow the law hire customs specialists to navigate the maze of regulations.

The Tulpar System is a management technology based on the concept of “single window” registration and payment. It is the result of many years of customs reform efforts in the developed world that followed the logic of anti-protectionist “free” trade and streamlined efficiency. Although many local counterparts in Central Asia voice support for implementing the Tulpar System in their countries, the project seems to be caught in limbo as it comes up against the inertia of already existing bureaucratic structures and practices. Additionally, I doubt that the scheme will be successful unless it benefits business leaders (like those in Dordoi).

Recent anthropology has focused on ways that technical expertise is contentious and polyvalent. The idea that assumptions and practices of any technical field are uniform across space and time is a myth; culture always plays a role in how actors wield knowledge. Some famous examples of anthropological investigations into this include the work of Paul Rabinow, Adriana Petryna, and Joao Beihl. But equally interesting is the research being done by other doctoral students. (CB and JR, I’m thinking of you.)

Posted in anthropology, development, trade | 2 Comments

Slouching Towards China

Well, after too much time between posts, I am finally back to the blog. Since the last update I spent several weeks on vacation in India, where I saw the same Chinese goods in open air markets that are sold in the pedestrian underpasses in Bishkek. (What I would give to find out who is importing them and how!)

The ever-kind Amy E. from the Penn museum (who set me up with this blog platform) was kind enough to point me towards a wonderful article in the New York Times that outlines that ways that Kashgar is changing in light of the Chinese government’s efforts to push forward internal development (or same might say colonialism). Unlike some of the Time’s reporting on Xinjiang(the officially Uighur Autonomous Region), this piece adeptly characterizes the relationship between ethnic, political, and economic tension in the region.

The economic aid being provided to Kashgar is meant to stimulate the economy and bring Xinjiang up to speed with Eastern China’s boom times. When asked about the prospects for Kashgar’s development, a local economist quoted by the Times states “The region’s best hope… is to turn Kashgar into a transit hub for Chinese goods heading to Central Asia and a manufacturing zone using raw goods coming the other way.”

Kashgar is where I plan on being based from August through December of this year. In preparation for my research there, I have started working everyday with a tutor in Mandarin. I am already proficient in Uighur, but if I want to be able to easily navigate Xinjiiang’s bureaucracy, a command of Chinese will be essential.

(Special thanks to A. in Munich for compelling me to get back to posting.)

Posted in development, politics, Xinjiang | 1 Comment

The Dizzying Reality of Global Commodity Chains

Although I was devoted to the task of election monitoring while in Cote d’Ivoire, I still payed close attention to aspects of Ivorian life that could inform or shed light onto my research half a world away.

With this in mind, I perused the aisles of the supermarket in Soubré, a small town in the province of Bas-Sassandra, where I spent the bulk of my time while in-country. Though I ought to be nonplussed by such things at this point, I was taken aback to find a large display in the store devoted to Turkish biscuits and candies. I was used to seeing them in shops in Istanbul and never expected them to turn up south of the Sahara.

Next to the Turkish treats above are stacks of Dutch shortbread cookies. Other places in the shop I found wine from Moldova (we have it in Kyrgyzstan too!), juices and dates from the Gulf states, as well as various and sundry things from around Africa and southern Europe.

In addition the surprises that turned up in the shop, I went to the open air market in Soubré, which felt a lot like Central Asian bazaars. My election observation partner who is from Comoros, a tiny archipelago state in the Indian Ocean north of Madagascar, came with me. I saw some cloth decorated with an intricate and beautiful African motif print and asked her if she liked it. She answered that she loved it, which is why she bought some yards of it in the Comoros and had a dress made from it the year before. The were also also countless stalls selling electronic accessories from China, including a multi-plug adapter that I use in my apartment in Bishkek.

There have been several in-depth anthropological studies of commodity chains. (I am indebted to my fellow anthro-friend CB‘s facebook inquiry from a few months ago for bringing these examples to mind.) Some noteworthy ones for those of you who have the time, and are near a good library or healthy bank account: Shea Butter Republic by Brenda Chalfin, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore Bestor, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon.

Lastly, I will point you to The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe. This gives me a good excuse to post a lovely picture of cocoa pods luxuriously ripening on the tree in a multi-use forest just outside of Soubré. Each one was bigger than my head.

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Will Kazakhstan Be Ready at Half Past Eight?

In 1997, the Kazakh government announced its long term development strategy entitled “Kazakhstan 2030.” Suddenly, in Almaty there appeared light displays emblazoned with the numbers 2030 on buildings across the city. If you are so inspired, you can read the text of the original proclamation here. In addition to the official 2030 statement, Nazarbaev (president of Kazakhstan, 1991-present) regularly referred to 2030 in the media as an almost mythical time when all of the country’s problems would be solved.

For many who were here, negotiating their lives through the economic turmoil, Kafka-esque bureaucracy, and continuous abuse of power by state officials, the 2030 slogan seemed like another incarnation of empty Soviet era platitudes. As a way to undermine the levity of the rhetoric about 2030, residents began referring to it as “half past eight” (think of a digital 24 hour clock – 20:30). When I was living in Almaty in 2002, few if any people seemed to have confidence that the government would deliver on the lofty goals in its 40 year development plan, and 2030 took its place as the butt of many jokes.

Now, almost nine years later, Almaty is nearly unrecognizable to me. The level of economic and political development has skyrocketed since the 1990s. Corruption, at least at on the level encountered by basic citizens, has been significantly curbed. Huge investments have been put into infrastructure and education. Private business is booming.

Suddenly, 2030 doesn’t seem so laughable. Or course, bringing it to pass is still a distant goal but one that no longer has a patina of ridiculousness.

The results of this for quasi-formal economic arrangements, like those found in bazaars is potentially profound. Already, in cities like Almaty and Astana the bulk of trade has shifted from bazaars to shops. If Kazakhstan continues to move towards stricter regulation and transparency, how will this affect overland trade in neighboring states?

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Alive and Kicking It in Almaty

Please excuse the hiatus. After wrapping up with round one of the Ivorian elections, getting sick while stopping in Turkey, and catching up with a host of responsibilities upon returning to Bishkek, the poor blog has suffered neglect. Do not fear for its survival, however. Even though the words haven’t hit the screen, they have been percolating in my mind over the last few weeks.

Also, tomorrow you can expect the first video entry – a long shot of what it looks like to stroll through the endless rows of containers in the Dordoi Bazaar.

After struggling to meet with the people in charge of Dordoi for months, I finally had success this week and conducted an extended interview with the general director of one of the larger subsets of the Dordoi group. She has agreed to let me start working there in a loose sort of internship starting the second week in January. This is exactly the type of participant-observation breakthrough that I have been hoping for. I will have access into the organizational structure of the bazaar as well as the corporate/cooperative culture of the business.

This week, I am spending time in Almaty, Kazakhstan where I am meeting with people in UNESCO’s office that overseas migration issues. I will also be spending some time at the Barakholka Bazaar, Almaty’s closest approximation to Dordoi, trying to get some face time with people in the administration. Ideally, I would be able to conduct similar research there later in 2011. You can see a slow-to-load but decent aerial photograph of Barakholka here.

Posted in Kazakhstan, trade | 1 Comment

Trade Along the Heroin Road

For the purposes of my research, I have chosen to concentrate on the exchange of household goods and clothing on the transnational routes of Central Asia instead of the (at first blush) more sexy markets of arms and narcotics. Although Central Asia serves as an important route for the export of poppy and cannabis based drugs out of Afghanistan, I have two important reasons for shying away from these topics: a) the trade of clothes and household products accounts for a massive amount of revenue and its effects touch the lives of every resident in the region; b) I don’t want to end up jailed/maimed/rich-but-morally-bankrupt.

That said, it is important to understand the dynamics of the drug trade and its subsequent influence on local culture and politics. While I was in Osh, many people I spoke to lauded the local mayor’s power and generosity and sometime off handedly mentioning that he has become such a force to be reckoned with due to his substantial role in the narcotics business. I recently came across a well written article on the BBC website that explained these connections, and their effects on national Kyrgyz politics. Click over and enjoy while I catch a UN flight inland from the Ivorian coast.

Posted in Kyrgyzstan, politics, trade | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment