When the war in Ukraine began, Russians headed to gun stores in numbers. They bought so many weapons that it caused a shortage in next-door Kazakhstan.
The crisis is causing disarray in a sector that was already struggling.
“Gun stores are barely surviving,” Niyaz Nuriyev, owner of the Jaguar Astana gun store, complained to Eurasianet. “Our business used to be highly profitable, but now we’re close to shutting down.”
In the last year alone, the demand for weapons in Russia led manufacturers there to double the price of the guns they export to Kazakhstan. And Koramsak, a gun lobbying organisation, says around 40% of the Kazakh market is accounted for by Russian products, which have traditionally been much cheaper than Western analogues.
Other favoured sources for imports are the United States, Germany, Spain, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Prices for those products have gone up too.
Nuriyev said that if his store sold 20 guns a month before 2022, now he can only move two or three units over that timeframe.
Customers are dismayed too.
“Winchester [rifles] have gone up in price and hunting has become a ruinous hobby,” Aleksander Yegorchenko, an Almaty resident, told Eurasianet.
The gun trade in Kazakhstan has been in a parlous state since 2016.
In June that year, a group of Islamic extremists in the northern city of Aktobe robbed and raided two weapons stores before going on a shooting spree that would end up leaving seven dead and around two dozen injured.
The bloodshed stunned authorities caught unaware of the potential threat posed by self-radicalised groups prepared to take violent stands. In the security-focused response that ensued, gun shops received special attention.
In May 2017, the government adopted rules requiring gun stores to install more secure storage units for their wares and to display weapons unassembled and without live cartridges. Panic buttons don’t just send alarm signals to security firms and the police – prior to the Aktobe episode only security guards received emergency notifications – they also block gun storage units in a way that locks out employees.
This last measure came into its own during the unrest that tore through Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, in January 2022. When the police disappeared following an early surge of violence, looters rampaged through shopping centres and restaurants. Heightened security measures in gun shops delayed marauders from getting their hands on weapons for anywhere up to two days. Even cracking into the secure units was not enough for people trying to get hold of guns.
“In one incident, the guns that the criminals found were lacking the parts needed to fire them,” Sergei Katnov, executive director of Koramsak, told Eurasianet.
But while the security measures provide some peace of mind, industry insiders say they have been fatal for business. By restricting gun shops to free-standing locations, away from residential buildings and shopping centres, the government rendered many existing outlets non-viable.
The introduction of those rules precipitated the closure of two out of every five gun shops in Kazakhstan, according to Koramsak’s estimates.
Katnov describes the requirements as “draconian” and says the security measures are more than enough to allay concerns.
“Nowhere in the world are there such severe prohibitions regarding the location of weapons stores. In Germany, for example, they happily operate in residential buildings,” he said.
Rules on legal gun ownership have been tightened too. If it was once permitted to own five smooth-bore firearms and five rifled guns, the limit is now just two of those guns apiece.
This has mainly affected hunters, by very far the mainstay of the firearm market.
“If you used to hunt ducks and hares, but then you wanted to decide to start hunting larger game, goats, wolves or bears, for example – and you need larger-calibre weapons for that – then the current restrictions do not enable you to do this,” Yegorchenko said.
Unlike the United States, though, debates around this subject are relatively low-key. The concept of owning weapons for self-defence is a largely alien one in Kazakhstan. Most people inclined to buy a weapon for that purpose rely on compressed gas guns, which are capable of wounding but are rarely fatal, or stun guns.
Then there is the circulation of illegally owned firearms to consider. The government routinely undertakes buyback initiatives to encourage the owners of such weapons to voluntarily give them up. On April 10, the Interior Ministry revealed that it has taken more than 56,000 guns and two million rounds of ammunition out of circulation in this way since 2008.
"These measures had a positive impact on the crime situation. In the last five years alone, the number of crimes committed with weapons fell by almost half, from 389 in 2016 to 192 in 2021," Asylbek Idirisov, head of an Interior Ministry division tasked with policing gun ownership, told reporters.
The black market for firearms was likely given a major boost by the January 2022 unrest, however. Amid the chaos, mobs assaulted police precincts and raided them for weapons. And in November, police admitted that the whereabouts of more than 2,000 firearms stolen during those events are still unknown.
The slump in the legal market is particularly disappointing for gun traders who had hoped for a brief moment to profit from the fact that Russia was being slapped with so many Western sanctions. Large numbers of cash-carrying Russians were expected to come across the border to start buying imported firearms, since the procedure was in theory straightforward, provided buyers could obtain a document from a Russian diplomatic mission attesting to their lack of a criminal record. But before the boom could get under way, the Russian embassy and consulates ceased issuing those documents.
The suspicion among industry insiders in Kazakhstan is that Russia is seeking to protect its own market this way.
Kazakh authorities, meanwhile, appear disinclined to step in to support the sector.
“They have other, more pressing problems right now,” Katnov said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.
This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.