Kyrgyzstan & Uzbekistan: Border Crisis Enters Third Week
Kyrgyz villagers in a troubled border region are experiencing food, fuel and medicine shortages, local media reported today, as a state of emergency in southern Kyrgyzstan continues. In Bishkek, officials say they have made no progress getting their Uzbek counterparts to reopen the frontier after Tashkent unilaterally closed most checkpoints on January 17.The latest tensions date to January 5, when residents of Sokh, an Uzbek enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, reportedly attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were installing electrical wires on a contested piece of territory. The next day locals took several dozen Kyrgyz hostage and destroyed their vehicles. Though the hostages were quickly released and the Kyrgyz received compensation for their damaged property (reportedly collected from Sokh’s residents, who are mostly ethnic Tajiks), troubles remain in this Ferghana Valley flashpoint.Sokh is a strategic parcel of land. A 350-square-kilometer valley blessed with water in a parched agricultural region, it basically cuts Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province in half. The only all-weather Kyrgyz road passes through this Uzbek territory, meaning Kyrgyz traveling between Batken, perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s poorest province, and Osh must stop at Uzbek checkpoints. As the population grows, and land and water become scarcer, the region seethes and occasionally erupts in violence. Now, with the border closed, the Uzbek residents of Sokh are unable to get out. And some seven Kyrgyz villages, the ones experiencing shortages, remain accessible only by helicopter.Kurbanbay Iskandarov, head of the Kyrgyz government office on delimitation and demarcation, said difficulties agreeing on a common border arise because each side refers to different historical maps. In an interview with Fergananews.com last week, Iskandarov said that poorly trained border guards and corrupt local officials further exacerbate the situation, leading to outbreaks of violence like the one earlier this month. Iskandarov complained that his counterparts in Tashkent are frequently replaced and cannot make decisions without consulting their top leaders. “We have a democratic country, they have something different,” he said, adding that “concessions” are necessary on both sides.Tashkent has said little, though President Islam Karimov alluded to the crisis in a speech broadcast on state television on January 19 (via BBC Monitoring): “It seems to me that in the old Soviet-era the leadership gave instructions to specially design everything the way to make the republics interdependent. For example, to go from one village to another, one had to go through a neighboring republic. … A question arises: was it made this way on purpose? Think about this yourself.”Repeating one of his favorite refrains, Karimov said the peoples of Central Asia had been friends for thousands of years, but warned that “interested forces” are trying to create trouble in the region. “Somebody would like to stir up this and watch from aside. They want to put us against each other. They want to contribute to keeping us from development by causing a confrontation,” he said, without offering evidence to support his claim. Across Kyrgyzstan’s other often-tense border, Dushanbe has also said little. Sokh is only a few kilometers from a Tajik frontier that is also not fully delimited, and where conflict is common. Tajikistan’s foreign minister said last week he had requested historical documents from Russia, saying he hoped the records would help put an end to the border disputes. But more aged maps will likely just further muddle the competing claims.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.