The leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan met on January 27 to jointly announce that the protracted process of delimiting the border between their two countries has come to an end.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev traveled to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to mark an occasion that both leaders have described as “historic.”
Persistent uncertainties about the exact contours of the roughly 1,400-kilometer-long border are a legacy of the Soviet era. Even as frontiers were chopped and changed, the question of which republic owned what land were for all practical purposes deemed a formality since the Kyrgyz SSR and the Uzbek SSR were both part of the Soviet Union.
But bilateral relations since 1991 have persistently been tainted by disagreements on this question. At times, local communities have come into conflict over rival claims to land.
Kyrgyz leader Sadyr Japarov was buoyant over the agreement, which was last year ratified hastily by his own country’s parliament amid vocal opposition from activists and opposition politicians. Many of those opponents to the deal are currently in jail awaiting trial on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government.
“The final resolution of the border issue will play a key role in the further development of our fraternal relations and the strengthening of border contacts. And it will contribute to strengthening stability and security in the Central Asian region,” Japarov said on January 27.
Mirziyoyev spoke in similar terms, asserting that the agreement would guarantee “peace and tranquility” between the two nations. Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have never been this good, Mirziyoyev said.
“This is a historic event that our brotherly nations have been awaiting many, many years,” Mirziyoyev said. “It was hard, but with the political will of the two presidents, it turns out that it is possible to solve these complex and supposedly irresolvable issues [that have endured over 30 years].”
Mirziyoyev and Japarov signed other documents along with the border delimitation deal. The 20 or so agreements touch on areas ranging from cooperation on customs protocols to energy, and agriculture to industry. Many of the agreements envision deepened dialogue among local government representatives along the shared border.
The Mirziyoyev administration press service threw out many numbers to make the point about how improved ties have had an economic dividend. Bilateral trade in 2022 reached $1.3 billion. Officials say they want that number to reach $2 billion. More than 300 joint ventures were set up over that period. Just over the course of a business forum that took place on the eve of Mirziyoyev’s visit, $1.6 billion worth of contracts were signed between companies from the two countries.
Kyrgyz deputy economy minister Kanat Abdrakhmanov said that a $50 million automobile factory being built in Kyrgyzstan with assistance from Uzbekistan could start production as early as this year.
The number of workers at the plant is expected to reach 2,000 over time, Abdrakhmanov said, who noted that most of the cars produced would be used to cover the needs of the domestic market.
Separately, an Uzbek government official has said in remarks to the media that Uzbekistan plans to buy up to 4 million tons of coal from Kyrgyzstan in the coming two years. Uzbek Energy Minister Zhurabek Mirzamahmudov confirmed while in Bishkek that conversations on the proposal were ongoing but he did not mention any figures.
Kyrgyz opponents to the border deal have said it stands to deprive their country of an important water reservoir.
This is a framing that the authorities have rejected. They have been severe in making that point. Dozens of activists and politicians who have criticized the rushed way in which the bilateral deal was approved in parliament were arrested in October and have since that time languished in jail pending prosecution.
In a statement timed to coincide with Japarov and Mirziyoyev’s meeting in Bishkek, relatives of those detainees said that the border agreement had been “washed with the tears” of imprisoned government opponents.
“Our mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, daughters and sons, 24 people in total, have been in custody for more than 100 days,” the statement read. “Despite everything, we continue to believe in the triumph of justice and still hope that our loved ones will be freed.”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.