When a delegation of traders from Uzbekistan recently came to show off their wares in Tajikistan, it caused a minor sensation.
The fair held in Dushanbe was the first of its kind since independence — a fresh signal of a potential thaw between the neighboring nations that have had a generally frosty relationship since the Soviet collapse in 1991.
The goods on display at the Poytakht-90 trading house ranged from the small — everyday products like candy, fabrics, medicine and footwear — to bigger-ticket items like buses, cars, air conditioners and refrigerators. Attendees at the four-day fair, held April 17-20, were taken aback.
“Uzbekistan stunned us. Over there, they produce everything from busses to household goods. The quality of their textile production is also excellent,” economist Sharif Muhammad told EurasiaNet.org.
The fair served as a showcase for around 160 Uzbek companies. For the first three days of the event, the companies were just displaying the goods, but a frenzy of sales marked the closing day.
Mahbuba Sattorova said she wasted no time buying a washing machine for 2,500 somoni (about $300).
“It’s an automatic washing machine; it can wash up to six kilos. It is cheap and it has a three-year guarantee. If I went to [Dushanbe household appliances store] Volna, a similar machine would cost no less than $500,” she said.
But the Uzbeks were not in Dushanbe to sell the odd item. They were looking to establish long-terms business relations with local partners — an easier proposition now with the improved diplomatic climate ushered in by new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The prospects already look promising.
With the fair over, entrepreneurs from both countries gathered for an inaugural Tajik-Uzbek business forum, where they reportedly sealed 20 commercial supply deals worth a total of $35 million for items including electric goods, chemicals, food, building materials and automobiles.
The appeal of Uzbek imports is that they can compete with goods from more established manufacturers in terms of quality, while offering an attractive price.
Batyr Umarov, the regional manager for Tashkent-based Artel, said his company has experience of producing household appliances under license for global industry giants Samsung and LG. Those deals have given Artel some insight into quality standards for an export market. At the moment, Artel’s exports goods to markets like Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia and Armenia. The company branched into the Tajik market last year, but the fair has revealed a whole new level of potential, Umarov said.
“For the past two years we have been studying this market. And last year we began exporting our goods to Tajikistan,” he said. “Thanks to this fair we understood that there is demand for our goods … In the future, we plan to take a commanding position in this market, so that wherever you go, you will see Artel. We want everybody in Tajikistan to know our brand.”
Nuriddin Faiziyev, general director of textile company Garbus Trade, said the carpets his firm produces cost $1.5 dollars per meter. That is on average around $0.50 less than what Chinese competitors offer, and the quality is better, Faiziyev insisted. He is already exporting to Kazakhstan and Russia.
“We only brought promotional samples to show our prospective Tajik partners, so as to close deals. Over three days, we drew around 20 people interested in tying up with us. We are already thinking about how to get them visas for Uzbekistan, so that they can have another look at our things,” he said.
Despite the misleading name, South Korean-Uzbek joint enterprise Uz Dong Zhu Paint Co. specializes, among other things, in manufacturing sporting apparel. Mumina Bakhtiyarova, a marketing representative for the company, said visitors to the Dushanbe fair were particularly interested in the footwear.
“Our shoes sell from $14 to $20. The $20 models are for professional athletes. It is an excellent price. We pay close attention to quality. We use high-quality raw materials to make our shoes,” Bakhtiyarova said, waving her hand over a bare display case previously piled with her company’s products.
Sattorova, who bought the $300 washing machine, told EurasiaNet.org that she dabbles in trading and is now considering getting into the import-export business in Uzbekistan, but that there are still plenty of barriers.
“Air tickets, hotels, taxes, customs. These all have a bearing on the final cost of an item — it is all expensive. I am considering my options about how to bring things in from Uzbekistan. But the visa issue is still a problem. If they scrapped visas, that would really make our work easier,” she said.
The sheer wealth of goods on display at the Uzbek fair has starkly illustrated Tajikistan’s own lack of export ambitions and capabilities. Economists say that beyond cotton, aluminum and dry fruits, the country produces little of note in significant quantities.
“We missed our chance to develop. All groceries in Tajikistan are imported, and other than dairy goods, we make almost nothing,” said Muhammad, the economist. “Lately, because of weaknesses in the agricultural sector, Tajikistan is even importing fruit and vegetables from China, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Oynihol Bobonazarova, a civil society activist and politician who once made an unsuccessful run for the presidency, said that in the long run it will prove advantageous to shift away from imports from China and Turkey in favor of Uzbekistan.
“We do not have our own manufacturing sector; we can just go ahead and hand over the market to our neighbor. They have quality goods. And it could even end up with bringing our people closer,” Bobonazarova said.