asiaNet Eurasia Insight
The Spring Border Crisis
Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan deteriorated significantly in the space of one week in mid-February. Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov helped spark controversy with unflattering comments about Kyrgyzstan. First, in radio broadcast origninating in the Uzbekistani border province of Andijon, Karimov suggested that conditions in Kyrgyzstan were chaotic because its leader could not do much of anything apart from smile. The Kyrygz press translated this word as "irsay,"which means 'to grin stupidly' - a translation that may have intensified negative reactions towards Uzbekistan in Kyrgyzstan. The same week, Karimov, speaking in a television interview, confirmed that the major cross-border bus service in the Ferghana Valley had been suspended. The suspension, which actually began in January, concluded a process that had started with a reduction in services the previous summer. He explained the action by saying: "Kyrgyzstan is a poor country, and it is not my job to look after the people. Every day five thousand people come from Osh to Andijon - if each of them buys one loaf of bread, there will not be enough left."
Relations deteriorated further following bomb explosions that killed 16 people in Tashkent on February 16. The borders in the Ferghana Valley were sealed for several days, while authorities searched for suspects. After reopening, crossing the border involved growing delays, with tightened inspections and periodic closures facilitated by the construction and improvement of more posts and checkpoints.
Uzbekistan's actions prompted territorial disputes. Some Kyrgyz officials aleged that Uzbekistan was annexing significant chunks of Kyrgyz territory. In addition, there were complaints about heavy-handed behavior by Uzbek security services, which allegedly kidnapped Kyrgyzstani citizens in Osh and Jalal-Abad because they were suspected of having connections with Uzbek opposition groups.
Another source of tension revolved around energy supplies. In early 1999, Uzbekistan frequently cut off gas supplies to its neighbor, citing unpaid bills. Despite the hardships created by the periodic cutoffs, Kyrgyz officials did nothing to retaliate.
The Impact on Kyrgyzstan's Population in the Ferghana Valley
The economic effects of this border crisis were soon felt in Kyrgyzstan, primarily in the form of significantly higher food prices. Daily life for many Kyrgyz citizens was hampered by the interruption in bus services. Conditions were especially difficult for those living in remote areas of Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces. Because many major roads criss-cross international boundaries, travel times from Osh to mountainous Leylek and Batken increased three-fold, and one journalist reported that "The ordinary people of Leylek and Batken are having their links with the outside world severed."
Adding to individual hardships was the unpredictabe activity of Uzbekistani border guards. Sometimes border guards allowed buses to cross the border, sometimes routes were sealed off entirely, closed to even cars or pedestrians. The Bishkek to Jala-Abad rail link ground to a halt. With serious problems of management and funds at the Kyrgyz state air company occurring at the same time as Uzbekistan blocking sections of the road, it became even harder to get over Tien Shan from the north of Kyrgyzstan to the south. Local government developed different ways to deal with the crisis. There was much talk about constructing new roads to bypass those cut by Uzbekistan, and the air route between Osh and outlying Isfana was reopened after almost ten years.
Opposition Fury in Kyrgyzstan
The Kyrgyz nationalistic opposition reacted furiously to the border crisis, primarily because it has exposed Kyrgyzstan's own weakness in guarding its borders, as well as the country's inability to guarantee freedom of movement of its own people. "We'll soon be reduced to nothing less than riding around the mountains on horseback," said parliamentary deputy Daniyar Usunov in complaining about Uzbek border closures. He suggested shutting off water flow to Uzbekistan in revenge for their not giving Kyrgyzstan gas, echoing the argument frequently made in Kyrgyzstan that since the reservoirs which Uzbekistan utilises are largely in Kyrgyz territory Tashkent had an obligation to share maintenance obligations, as well as provide compensation for Kyrgyzstan's loss of agricultural land.
Usunov was lauded by the opposition press, with Asaba declaring him March's 'Man of the Month.'' The Aalam newspaper, meanwhile, printed a cartoon of a map of Kyrgyzstan being devoured by three monsters coming from the directions of Uzbekistan, China, and Kazakhstan with the emotive title: "Kyrgyzstan- here today, gone tomorrow?".
Parliamentary deputy and respected public figure Dooronbek Sadyrbaev criticized the government for not resisting Uzbekistan's allegedly unlawful occupation of Kyrgyz territory. Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz Ruxu newspaper expressed outraged at the increase in kidnappings of Kyrgyzstani citizens by Uzbekistani security forces.
The opposition press at the same time heaped scorn on Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev for failing to stand up for Kyrgyzstan's territorial integrity, economic interests and wounded honour. Res Publika newspaper commented cynically on inter-state relations, saying "the price of 'eternal friendship' is 5,000 loaves of bread."
(To be Continued)