Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan in New Standoff Over Mountain
Police from Uzbekistan have detained four citizens of Kyrgyzstan in a contested border zone, threatening to unleash a new wave of tension between the two nations.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service said on August 24 that Uzbekistan deployed a group of police officers to the disputed Ungar-Too mountain, site of a Kyrgyz-run television relay station, and took four men into custody.
The mountain and surrounding areas were object of a testy standoff in March that culminated with Uzbekistan deploying several armored personnel carriers. The situation was resolved peaceably after negotiations.
RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service reported about an Mi-8 helicopter carrying seven Uzbek policemen landing on Ungar-Too on August 22, but news of the detentions only emerged later.
“According to Uzbek side, four Kyrgyz citizens working at relay station were taken to Yangikurgan police department in Uzbekistan for procedural measures. According to the Uzbek border service, there is no cause for concern about the detained Kyrgyz citizens,” Kyrgyzstan’s border service said in its statement.
As happened earlier this year, this dispute is centering around disagreement over which country can post which law enforcement and military personnel where. Kyrgyzstan says it is in talks with Uzbekistan to have it remove its forces from the disputed mountain. Uzbekistan is in turn demanding that Kyrgyzstan in turn remove its police checkpoints leading to another disputed facility — the Kasan-Sai reservoir, whose water is used to irrigate fields in Uzbekistan.
This latest standoff has been brewing for almost two weeks. Kyrgyz border guards had earlier reported that Uzbek policeman was detained after allegedly illegally crossing the border on August 13.
The specifics around that incident still remain unclear and the account provided anonymously by Uzbek police sources to Russian news agency Sputnik’s Uzbek service describes a strange confrontation.
The source told Sputnik that commandos with Kyrgyzstan’s Scorpion unit tried to use force to enter the Kasan-Sai reservoir, which is ostensibly under Uzbek control despite being a few kilometers inside Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbek police guarding the reservoir is said to have repelled that act of purported intimidation amid an exchange of gunfire, but they said one among their ranks was taken away.
On August 22, the detained Uzbek policeman, identified as A. Tojibaev, was fined $300 and released, according to Kyrgyz officials.
Ultimate control over the reservoir appears to be the prize in all these standoffs.
During the March incident, Uzbek authorities cited the need to boost security ahead of the festivities to mark the Persian New Year, Nowruz, as a pretext to suddenly bolster their troop presence in the area. The deployed armored troop carriers, trucks and up to 40 troops and occupied a road linking the Kyrgyz settlements of Ala-Buka and Kerben. Those forces eventually withdrew after days of nervous brinksmanship.
Some of the territorial ambiguity in this area is apparently of Kyrgyzstan’s own making.
A domestic political scandal erupted in November when a Kyrgyz government document surfaced on social media purporting to be a request to move the television relay station from Ungar-Too as the mountain was Uzbek territory.
Rabble-rousing opposition politician Azimbek Beknazarov swiftly accused then-Prime Minister Temir Sariyev of “giving Kyrgyz land away.”
The government at the time dismissed the document as a fake and insisted that the status of Ungar-Too remained unresolved and should not therefore be considered part of Uzbekistan.
But President Almazbek Atambayev appears to have revived doubts over the issue with some characteristically cryptic remarks alluding to a possible agreement on Ungar-Too.
“From time to time, it becomes clear that there are instances when former presidents and other top officials have granted neighboring countries rights over this or that land that the people of Kyrgyzstan deemed and deems sacred Kyrgyz (territory),” he said on August 24. “Information about these so-called concessions are hidden, so that not only the people, but even the country’s leadership, including the president of the Kyrgyz republic, know nothing about it.”
The sound readers may be hearing is that of Atambayev washing his hands after throwing Sariyev, and who knows who else, under the bus.
Where that leaves the detained Kyrgyz quartet is unclear. Supposed Uzbek reassurances suggest they could be released quickly and that this was just a shot across the bow from Tashkent intended to show Bishkek that Uzbekistan is serious about pressing its rights to strategically important facilities like the Kasan-Sai reservoir.
Having politicized the border issue, officials and would-be opposition figures in Kyrgyzstan will now have to contend with the potential public fallout of any concessions.
Initiating dialogue on how best to share resources and jointly police complicated, high-altitude frontier areas would be the most rational and constructive solution, but neither of the governments involved has shown itself to be in possession of a surfeit of good sense.