Kazakhstan: Almaty Market Burns Again, Inflaming Suspicions
A sprawling market in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, has caught fire for the fourth time in just three months. The blazes are kindling suspicion that the lucrative trade at one of Central Asia’s largest bazaars is falling victim to turf wars.
This blaze follows a fire in September and two in November. They were preceded by another fire at a nearby market, Ushkonyr-7, in August. No one has died in the conflagrations, though several people have been injured.
The four fires have destroyed large swathes of Barakholka and cost billions of tenge in damage (the September blaze alone cost 1.7 billion tenge, or around $11 million, said Tengri News). This has left many traders unable to earn their livings, sparking public protests. Moreover, some merchants offered alternative trading spots are unhappy with the conditions.
Fire safety has long been an issue at Barakholka (in April traders protested against moves to close parts of the market over fire hazards), and the latest blazes have variously been blamed on incautious welding work and an unattended candle. But one fire was officially blamed on arson.
There have been plenty of mutterings among market traders of foul play. Conspiracy theories were fueled by news that it took security guards an hour after spotting a blaze on November 17 to call firefighters.
Moreover, the fires come as Almaty city authorities make plans to knock down Barakholka – where brisk trade in goods from over the border with China makes for a lucrative business – to build a futuristic new shopping complex.
Many vendors oppose the plans, fearing they will lose their livelihoods if rents rocket amid gentrification. But Almaty city officials say the chaotic market needs a cleanup and the gray economy needs to move out of the shadows.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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