Uzbekistan: Currency Confusion Sparks Booming Border Business
Uzbekistan’s new currency restrictions have generated some bafflement inside the country, as EurasiaNet.org has already reported – but confusion over the Byzantine regulations regulating the sale and movement of dollars and other currencies, including the Uzbek som, is nothing new.That bewilderment helps fuel a booming business at Uzbekistan’s main land border with Kazakhstan, where intermediaries are on hand to help the perplexed traveler navigate the obligatory customs forms – for a small consideration, naturally.The intermediaries, all from Uzbekistan, accost travellers on both sides of the Chernyayevka border post near Tashkent and are also present in the Uzbek customs section, where officials presumably turn a blind eye in exchange for a share in the profits. The form fillers offer assistance in navigating the Byzantine bureaucracy for a fee of 100 tenge (about 65 cents) or 2,000 sums ($1 at the official rate or around 80 cents at the black market rate).On a recent Saturday afternoon they were doing a roaring trade. But why would anyone pay someone to fill in a form he could just complete himself, I asked one matronly Uzbek woman who approached me offering her services. “Different reasons,” she said. “Some don’t have a pen, others have forgotten their glasses, a few can’t write.” She and her giggling colleagues were performing a “public service,” she joked with a flash of gold teeth.She may have a point: The customs form contains all kinds of pitfalls for the unwary traveler. On entry to Uzbekistan it is to be filled in duplicate, and on exit another form is filled for customs officials to check against the original so they can make sure travelers aren’t taking more money out of Uzbekistan than they brought in. Customs officials often make travelers produce their cash to count it – and anyone who wrote an approximate total on their form is in trouble: they can be accused of currency smuggling for the sake of a few cents or Uzbek sum.Then there’s the thorny question of what valuables to declare: For the more picky customs officers, an undeclared pair of gold earrings or a wedding ring (even on a finger) can be tantamount to jewelry smuggling. The rules are subject to arbitrary interpretation by customs officials on the take, so perhaps it’s no wonder that some perplexed travelers prefer to pay for a “public service” to navigate this maze of regulations.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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