Kyrgyzstan: Uzbek Authorities Take Action to Thwart Cross-Border Trade
Tension is rapidly escalating along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. In response to violent Islamic militant attacks in late May, Uzbek authorities have started to fortify their frontier by building three-meter-wide trenches in some areas, according to Kyrgyz media reports. Bishkek has criticized the Uzbek action as a violation of mutual security agreements.
Government sources in the Kyrgyz capital are warning the situation could easily escalate. Some political analysts, meanwhile, see Tashkent's latest moves as motivated by a desire to prop up the country's inefficient domestic economy.
The Kyrgyz Border Protection Service issued a formal protest on June 9: "The Kyrgyz Republic and Republic of Uzbekistan have a number of agreements that ban fortification before the state borders are delimited and demarcated. We must state that officially Tashkent is in violation of previously signed agreements," the border service statement said.
Uzbek officials could not be reached for comment.
The border has been tense for weeks. Even before a May 26 suicide bombing in the Uzbek city of Andijan, along with a raid of government offices in the border town of Khanabad, Uzbek border guards made an incursion into the Kyrgyz village of Chek in late April, reportedly searching for militants, local news reports said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Uzbek authorities have repeatedly asserted that the militants who carried out the May 26 attacks crossed into Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kyrgyz officials vehemently deny the allegation.
Since May 26 trouble has been brewing along the border. The day of the Andijan and Khanabad attacks, Kyrgyz officials say, Uzbek border police kidnapped a Kyrgyz border service officer, who remains in Uzbek custody. Then, under mysterious circumstances on June 7, Uzbek border guards shot and killed a Kyrgyz citizen. His body was returned to his family on June 10. Tashkent has not responded to a request by Kyrgyz border officials to jointly investigate the incident. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Fueling unease in Kyrgyzstan, residents of the southern city of Osh have complained of gas shortages. The suspected source of the shortages is Uzbektransgas, the Uzbek gas provider. Kyrgyz consumers owe the company $19.8 million, but the two countries had worked out a repayment schedule earlier in May.
Analysts can trace Uzbek-Kyrgyz tension back to last winter, when Bishkek pushed forward with plans to build the Kambarata complex of hydropower stations, thus potentially threatening to limit water supplies for Uzbekistan's thirsty cotton sector. Despite heavy lobbying against the project by Tashkent, Kyrgyz officials say they will not be deterred from moving ahead with their hydro-power plans. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The root of the problem between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan lies in the construction of Kambarata," said Bishkek-based political analyst Mars Sariev. "The main thing is [the Uzbeks] want to stop the construction of Kambarata by any means."
Kyrgyz MP Murat Juraev emphasized the connection between the border and Kambarata to Kyrgyz journalists on June 9. "Over the past four or five months, the situation in territories that border Uzbekistan has significantly worsened and this trend will continue," Juraev said. "This all is linked with the fact that Kyrgyzstan has decided firmly to build hydropower stations."
While agreeing that the Kambarata project is a sore point in Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations, Ajdar Kurtov at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Moscow believes Uzbekistan is sealing the border in an attempt to protect local industry hurt by the international economic slowdown. "I think one of the main reasons why Uzbekistan is [building the trenches is] to protect itself in times of financial crisis from contraband goods," Kurtov said. "Its neighbor Kyrgyzstan buys goods from China and resells the same goods to Uzbekistan; at the moment Uzbekistan is activating its protectionist politics," he said.
Locals in Kyrgyzstan are reeling from the economic effects of the border lockdown. The Osh and Kara-Suu bazaars, the two largest markets in the Ferghana Valley, have been particularly hard-hit by the closure of border checkpoints. Traders at Kara-Suu said that the continued Uzbek border closure could potentially lead to the closure of the bazaar, Central Asia's largest. "Most of our customers come from Uzbekistan. After this [closure of borders], sales at our bazaar have dropped by more than 50 percent. We're all in big trouble," a representative of the bazaar's management told EurasiaNet.
The livelihood of Uzbek residents across the border is also threatened. Salima Tojiboyeva, a merchant at Kara-Suu, said, "Uzbek farmers and labor migrants are suffering too. They supplied fruits and vegetables to us. Now they are all sitting idle as their produce is decaying."
A Kyrgyz border official appeared to support this thesis in an interview with EurasiaNet on June 11, suggesting Uzbek authorities were using the May 26 violence as a pretext to hamper cross-border trade, rather than stopping militants. "They are digging trenches where most of the contraband [trade in] fruits and goods is happening, because those trenches will not stop people, [instead] they will stop cars and other transportation from crossing it illegally," said Kubanych Sarybaev, first deputy chairman of the Kyrgyz Border Service.
Despite heightened security, residents say they are still able to cross by bribing border guards. One Andijan resident described the ease with which he crossed the frontier recently: "My father died and I came to attend the [mourning] ceremony in Osh. I was not allowed to cross at the checkpoint. Luckily I was approached by some locals who knew a hidden [route] and they helped me pass through for a small fee," he said.