Looking inside the Dordoi bazaar

by Philippe Rudaz

Stuck between China and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan is located in one of the main arteries of globalization. The Dordoi bazaar in the outskirts of Bishkek is absorbing all kind of goods, most of them from China, and reselling them to Russian, Kazak and Kyrgyz intermediaries or retail clients. The bazaar is a giant maze, made of approximately 40’000 containers with alleys that can stretch along 1 kilometer. Stacked upon another, the first container is used to display goods and the other one to store the merchandise. The Dordoi bazaar provides the opportunity of an economic activity to approximately 50’000 people, according to Karrar [1]. The economic and social importance of bazaars such as Dordoi is important on multiple levels. The potential of trade for economic development is not insignificant. Bazaars and cross-border trade alleviate poverty by reducing the cost of trade, and thus providing products at cheaper prices. They also offer employment opportunities, especially for women, and play a central role in national and regional chains of production and distribution. Bazaars are far from the clichéd chaotic, informal, backward marketplaces that belong to the past. On the contrary, they are highly organized places structured by small value chains. In Dordoi, goods are carried around on long wooden carts through the alleys by carriers, compressed and covered with plastic by others. Duck tape and plastic bags are sold nearby by women. Shipping companies and foreign exchanges brokers have small offices next to the custom clearance administration.

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While they are essential components of cross-border trade, little is known about the structure and organization of Central Asian bazaars beyond the accounts and analysis of anthropologists. Our work on the life and decision making of traders in the Dordoi bazaar tries to offer a look into their world.

As part of the research project “informal market and trade in the Caucasus and Central Asia”, 300 traders were surveyed in August 2016. They participated in a brief face-to-face interview, offering a glimpse at the structure of the Dordoi bazaar. Respondents were chosen arbitrarily in all sections of the bazaar, which was the closest selection method to a random pick, since obtaining a list of all the traders was impossible. So while we cannot claim that the sample is strictly representative, it provides nonetheless some interesting insights into the functioning of Dordoi.

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It is not a market based solely on informal transactions: While more than one third of the interviewed traders deal with oral agreements, they also record their transactions. Similarly, we find a situation where more than one third do not own a bank account, but the overwhelming majority deals with foreign currencies: only 10 percent of the traders interviewed deal only in the Kyrgyz currency, half of the other traders deal with one foreign currency and the rest with more than one. The fluctuation of the Dollar, Rubble, Som, Yuan, Tenge and Euro is watched daily by more than one third of the traders. Some are following the foreign exchange rates more than twice a day. This data above shows that Dordoi market is a highly globalized microcosm in itself. Strolling through the different sections of this gargantuan central Asian mall, one has the impression of being able to take the pulse of globalization. The most cited source of information is thereby the internet, followed by clients and supplier. In this regard, informal personal networks like friends or family are less important and TV and radio have become less relevant media. Surprisingly, half of the respondents have a university education. The sample of respondent is composed of 219 younger than 45 years old. 122 of them have a university degree. Two-third have declared that their education helped them “very much” in their business activities.

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The Dordoi market symbolizes with all its vibrancy the emergence of a market economy and the rise of the economic power of China, whose significance for the region culminates in the One Belt One Road project. It is also a place where transnational linkages are formed and maintained. Clients, retail and wholesale traders of different nationalities and ethnic background deal everyday with one another. People from southern Siberia are coming by bus. They choose the merchandise they will resell and return the same day.

Traders in the bazaar are not just waiting for clients to arrive. More than one third also have to travel to China, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Russia and India to conduct their business. The web of inter-dependency that commerce produces in Central Asia converges there. Peace, famously wrote Montesquieu, naturally follows from trade. Dordoi provides a good terrain to test that claim.

About the Author:

Philippe Rudaz is currently a research project coordinator at the Academic Swiss Caucasus Network in the university of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Hasan Karrar with whom I did this fieldwork and I am grateful to the Volkswagen Foundation, which is funding this research.