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Closed Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Border Ratcheting Up Tensions

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For Turgunaly Tagaev, a villager in southern Kyrgyzstan’s isolated and impoverished Batken Province, the death of his brother, who lived a few kilometers away, was a tragedy. But his sense of loss turned into a sense of injustice and anger when border guards from neighboring Uzbekistan -- where his brother’s village is located -- kept him from the funeral.

Batken saw none of the violence that erupted between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks last June, but its residents are paying a price for the change in government that preceded the deadly clashes: After the April 2010 uprising in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan unilaterally closed the countries’ shared border, creating personal and economic problems for people on both sides, but also leading to a larger rise in regional tensions. With talks over hundreds of kilometers of disputed boundaries now stalled, and international aid focused on more immediate consequences of the June conflict, observers of the Ferghana Valley warn that the chances of clashes between ethnic groups, and possibly even states, are growing. 

The rise in tensions is already apparent. Kyrgyz authorities say there were about two dozen border-related skirmishes with Uzbekistan in 2010 alone. In a typical recent incident, a group of 30 Kyrgyz residents of Aidarken, a village in Batken, attacked an Uzbek checkpoint located near Sokh, an Uzbek enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, demanding that the border reopen, the 24.kg news agency reported. Farmers have been shot chasing stray cows. In some places, moreover, the poorly defined border runs right through villages, making delimitation, and enforcement, tricky.

Uzbek officials say the reasons behind the border closure have to do with security, but residents of southern Kyrgyzstan complain that the closure has hampered trade, preventing farmers from getting produce to market and deepening the remote area’s feeling of isolation.

“People were already tired of numerous checkpoints and inspections. The closure of the border for almost a year has made things unbearable for ordinary people,” said one Osh resident.  

According to Sergey Ponomarev, president of the Bishkek-based Association of Markets, Trade and Services Sectors, Tashkent’s decision to close the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border has decreased official trade turnover between the two countries by 90 percent. 

Apart from highlighting economic grievances and the growing risk of violence, the recent border clashes underscore a related breakdown in regional cooperation. Before last year’s unrest, a Kyrgyz-Uzbek commission on border delimitation and demarcation had agreed on 1,050 kilometers of the countries’ 1,395-kilometer frontier. Now, negotiations over the ownership of 58 disputed land parcels and access to notoriously isolated enclaves are suspended, Kyrgyzstan’s President Roza Otunbayeva said during a visit to Jalal-Abad on March 26. Tashkent has responded by fortifying parts of the border that are in dispute, Kyrgyz news agencies report. 

A senior Uzbek diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity according to protocol, explained that Tashkent has serious doubts about the staying power of the current Kyrgyz government and is merely trying to protect itself. 

“The [Kyrgyz] government’s hold on power is precarious, and it does not control its regions. What is the guarantee that agreements will be upheld?” the diplomat said. He added that Tashkent is concerned about a potential inflow of criminals and weapons onto Uzbek territory, and that many Uzbek officials blame the Kyrgyz security services for playing a role in last summer’s pogroms against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. 

Tashkent’s unwillingness to resume talks on border demarcation is likewise fuelling suspicions in Bishkek. Some Kyrgyz officials accuse Uzbek authorities of benefiting from the impasse by using resources on the disputed land such as grazing pastures and natural gas reserves. Others call for caution, reasoning that Bishkek is dealing with a militarily more powerful neighbor. 

Even if talks resume, Kyrgyzstan’s coffers lack the means to continue delimitation, officials in Bishkek warn privately. Sources close to the process complain that many skilled officials who commanded detailed knowledge of border issues and who represented the ousted Kyrgyz government in border talks -- such as chief negotiator Salamat Alamanov -- fled the country after the April 2010 regime change.

Antagonism between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan has been mounting lately, and the border tensions have only made matters worse. But some experts worry that the issue has been getting short shrift from international donors focused on political instability and reconstruction. “International donors work like fire departments,” said Robert Avazbekov, head of the Batken office of the Foundation for Tolerance International, a non-governmental organization specializing in conflict prevention. “They react to new crises while abandoning prevention work on potential crises in border areas.” 

To make matters worse, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are not the only two countries haggling over borders in the Ferghana Valley: Both also have long-running disputes with Tajikistan. Since 2002, a Kyrgyz-Tajik commission has managed to identify 71 land parcels claimed by both countries, but has made little progress beyond that. Last year, according to Kyrgyz authorities, there were about as many skirmishes on the border with Tajikistan as with Uzbekistan. However, the salient difference is that the Kyrgyz-Tajik border is utterly porous, creating an entirely different set of concerns. 

Alisher Khamidov is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asian affairs.

Closed Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Border Ratcheting Up Tensions

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