On April 2, 2021, the major border checkpoint at Kazakh-Kyrgyz international boundary – the Korday-Ak Zhol was opened after renovation by Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Askar Mamin and Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan Ulukbek Maripov. During the opening ceremony, which was part of the ninth meeting of the intergovernmental council, counterparts discussed the further development of border cooperation. By enlarging the throughput of the checkpoint, in particular, sides aspire to boost the movement of people and trade flows that have multiple effects for bilateral partnership [Primeminister.kz, 2021]. Against this backdrop, the article discusses prospects of renovated border checkpoint and elaborate the border cooperation between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in principal.
The Korday-Ak Zhol checkpoint is an important vein of connectivity in the region. Located on the highway leading to Almaty (200 km) and next to Bishkek (20 km), it is a major border post for people and cars along the Kazakh-Kyrgyz borders. Before the pandemic, it served around 10,000 people and 1,500 cars every day. During the peak times such as the tourist season or Sundays, the number reached up to 35,000 people and 2,500 cars, which led to long queues [Azattyk, 2021]. The decision to expand the capacity of one of the busiest border crossing points (BCP) was followed during the visit of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to Kyrgyzstan in November 2019, which resulted in closing the border for reconstruction in February 2020. At present, the upgraded checkpoints permit to cross from 1,000 to 2,500 vehicles and from 6,000 to 25,000 people per day. To achieve it, the building area was increased by 3.5 times to 4.9 thousand square meters, allowing to boost the capacity of traffic lanes from 2 to 8 and the number of passport control booths from 13 to 34 [Primeminister.kz, 2021].
The upgrade of the border facilities was awaited by pedestrians since it is the major route for passengers, cars, buses, and mini-buses along the border. Travelers from Kazakhstan cross the Korday border post, nearest to the Dordoy market, for purchasing goods in the major re-export center in Central Asia for bazaar-type products [Kaminski, Mitra, 2010]. During the summer season, the border post is overloaded with tourists traveling to Issyk-Kul, a popular tourist destination thanks to its high-altitude lake. It also connects citizens of Korday town with Bishkek, where they study, work or purchase goods due to its closeness. Kyrgyz citizens also pass the border through the Ak Zhol BCP due to its proximity to Bishkek and Almaty. Because the area is populated from both sides of the border, there is a high percentage of local border crossings, too. The mini-buses traveling between Bishkek-Almaty, as well as a regular bus line to Krasnoyarsk, Russia also supports a large number of pedestrians crossing the border [ADB, 2018].
Besides the Korday-Ak Zhol BCP, along the Kazakh-Kyrgyz borders, there are seven automobile and one railway checkpoints. Among them, the Karasu-Ak-Tilek located 30 km northeast of Bishkek and 200 km southeast of Almaty is the major checkpoint for freight vehicles. Like Kordai-Ak Zhol, it is another busy BCP, which in majority serves commercial trucks and cement trucks, carrying raw materials for or from the Kant Cement Factory.
A movement of people and goods between two countries proceed within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) procedures of free movement without the use of customs declaration and state control, where both are members of. Yet, the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border sometimes experiences obstacles related to the mechanisms of border control. In particular, Kyrgyzstan claimed a number of times on the accumulation of trucks due to Kazakhstan’s hindrance. Kyrgyz authorities even appealed to the World Trade Organization and the Eurasian Economic Commission on that issue. Kazakh side requests for better control, since, according to Kazakh authorities, Kyrgyzstan underestimates data on the export and import of goods by 10 times, which results in sufficient underpayment of VAT to the budget of Kazakhstan and partner countries [Kapital, 2020]. Kyrgyz authorities, in their turn, deny that smuggling is a problem within the system, insisting that it all are individual cases [Djanibekova, 2020].
In essence, the Kazakh-Kyrgyz borders always were a critical junction for transporting Chinese goods. Being the first Central Asian country that joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), Kyrgyzstan, from the beginning, actively used its potential with other WTO members like China. Thanks to preferential tariffs for the WTO members, along with liberal economic policies of the country, Kyrgyzstan became a Eurasian re-export hub with its center at the Dordoy market. Located 13 km from the Korday-Ak Zhol BCP, Dordoy supplied markets of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia with goods from China, Korea, Turkey, and other countries. There, according to different estimates, 70%-90% of goods coming from China were re-exported to other counties [Mogilevskii, 2012]. Although these privileges reduced when Kyrgyzstan entered the Customs Union and Kazakhstan opened its Special Economic Zone (SEZ) with China on its own borders, Kyrgyz people still attempt to benefit from Chinese transit. Probably, such attempts to hinder actual volumes of transported goods cause difficulties for both sides.
On top of that, border inspection becomes an issue when political circumstances call for it. In addition to a famous closure of borders, a reaction to the then-president of Kyrgyzstan Atambayev’s statements in 2017, the borders were forced to operate in a special mode or were completely closed during the Korday events in 2020, revolutions in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and 2010.
In general, Kazakh-Kyrgyz borders are strategic for ground-level interaction, since the borders are crossed every day by over 18 thousand people and more than 600 units of transport equipment [Amrebayev, 2020]. In 2019, according to the State Border Service of the Kyrgyz Republic, 12.1 million people crossed the Kazakh-Kyrgyz borders, but in 2020, the number decreased by five times – to 2.6 million due to coronavirus restrictions [Ulukbek uulu, 2021].
Hence, it is seen that the renovation of the key border checkpoint is a strategic step to enlarge the existing cooperation, whilst upgrading border facilities aims to eliminate existing border control issues. A memorandum of cooperation between Khorgos SEZ (Kazakhstan) and Naryn SEZ (Kyrgyzstan), along with prospects for the establishment of a joint Alatau Cross-Border Trade Centre at the Karasu – Ak Tilek checkpoint is another promising decision of the ninth intergovernmental council [Primeminister.kz, 2021]. We could only add that smart operation of borders benefits not only bordering countries but also affects the supply chain of the region and far beyond, which was well demonstrated during the restrictions caused by the recent pandemic.
ADB (2018). TA-9487REG: Almaty-Bishkek Economic Corridor Support. Kyrgyz Republic Report. Retrieved from https://www.almaty-bishkek.org/uploads/reports/ABEC-BCP-Process-Kyrgyz-Republic-Report.pdf. Accessed on 9.03.2021.
Amrebayev, Aydar (2020). Kazakhstan – Kyrgyzstan: The Border of Friendship and Cooperation or Misunderstanding and Rivalry? Retrieved from https://cabar.asia/en/kazakhstan-kyrgyzstan-the-border-of-friendship-and-cooperation-or-misunderstanding-and-rivalry. Accessed on 9.03.2021.
Azattyk (2021). The opening of the Ak-Zhol-Avtodorozhniy checkpoint took place with the participation of the heads of government of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Retrieved from https://rus.azattyk.org/a/sostoyalos-otkrytie-kpp-ak-zhol-avtodorozhnyy-posle-remonta/. Accessed on 9.03.2021.
Djanibekova, Nurjamal (2020). Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan border crises complicated by mutual distrust. Retrieved from https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-kazakhstan-border-crises-complicated-by-mutual-distrust. Accessed on 9.03.2021.
Kaminski, Bartlomiej and Mitra, Saumya (2012). Borderless Bazaars and Regional Integration in Central Asia: Emerging Patterns of Trade and Cross-Border Cooperation. Directions in Development-Trade. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Kapital (2020). Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have agreed to open all checkpoints on the border. Retrieved from https://kapital.kz/gosudarstvo/87754/kazakhstan-i-kyrgyzstan-dogovorilis-ob-otkrytii-vsekh-punktov-propuska-na-granitse.html. Accessed on 9.03.2021.
Mogilevskii, Roman (2012). Re-export Activities in Kyrgyzstan: Issues and Prospects. Institute of Public Policy and Administration. Working Paper No.9, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.ucentralasia.org/Content/Downloads/UCA-IPPA-WP-9-Reexport-Eng.pdf. Accessed on 9.03.2021.
Primeminister.kz (2021). The Prime Ministers of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have opened a modernized checkpoint “Korday – Ak Zhol”. Retrieved from https://www.primeminister.kz/ru/news/premer-ministry-kazahstana-i-kyrgyzstana-otkryli-modernizirovannyy-punkt-propuska-korday-ak-zhol-23131. Accessed on 9.03.2021.
Ulukbek uulu, Yrysbek (2021). Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have opened the largest border checkpoint. What has changed. Retrieved from https://rus.azattyk.org/a/31183632.html. Accessed on 9.03.2021.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th