A dispute over the imposition of border-crossing restrictions has heightened tension along the Turkmen-Uzbek border. Discontent has fueled a popular protest in the Turkmen regional capital of Tashauz, and apparently prompted Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov to reprimand two regional officials.
The Tashauz protest on January 12 drew about 700 people, who called for the immediate removal of all travel restrictions. Popular discontent is connected with Uzbekistan's move to impose a $6 border-crossing tax on Turkmen citizens seeking to enter Uzbekistan, starting January 1. Turkmenistan responded with a strengthened visa regime for Uzbek citizens.
In late January, Uzbek authorities reportedly decided to drop the entry fee. However, Turkmenistan has not indicated that it will undertake commensurate steps to ease its visa regime. On February 1, Niyazov imposed fines on local officials in areas along the Turkmen-Uzbek border. One, Habibulla Durdiyev, governor of the Tashauz region, was cited for "insufficient work in strengthening discipline in the region's organizations," according to the Turkmen state news agency.
The Tashauz Region - which is separated from the Uzbek autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan by the Amu Darya river - has a large ethnic Uzbek population. According to census data from the 1980s, the territory's population was about 70 percent Uzbek. Discontent among ethnic Uzbeks in Turkmenistan had been building since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over the past decade, Niyazov's government has limited the cultural rights of ethnic Uzbeks, including a drastic reduction of Uzbek-language educational opportunities.
Uzbek officials portrayed the introduction of the $6 fee as a response to initial Turkmen moves to establish visa regulations. Whatever the motivation, the imposition of the fee fueled rage among those desiring to cross the border.
Before the visa row, many on the Turkmen side of the border would frequently travel to Uzbekistan to shop at Uzbek markets in Shavat and Urgench. In a similar manner, Uzbeks often traveled to Tashauz to shop. In Turkmenistan, a country where the per capita GDP is only $4,300, the $6 fee effectively served as a travel ban.
The border restrictions have prompted growing numbers of Turkmen and Uzbeks to attempt illegal border crossings. In 2001, two Uzbeks were killed by Turkmen border guards during an illegal crossing attempt. On January 19, guards also accidentally shot a 14-year-old boy, who was keeping watch over a herd of cows near the border.
Kudrat Babadjanov is a freelance journalist based in Khorezm.