Ferghana Valley: Harsh Winter's Legacy Stokes Ethnic Tension

Rising concern over the scarcity of water is stoking tension in border areas of Central Asia's Ferghana Valley. Experts say the breakdown of local dispute resolution mechanisms is making it more difficult to find solutions to border-related issues.

The most serious border-related dispute in recent weeks involved control over water resources along an ill-defined stretch of frontier separating Tajikistan's Soghd Province from Kyrgyzstan's Batken Region. In late March, approximately 150 Tajiks, among them a few local officials, attempted to destroy a dam erected by the Kyrgyz authorities. The Tajiks complained that the dam was situated in an area where the border has not been mutually agreed upon, and that it was preventing water from reaching irrigation canals in Soghd Province. Kyrgyz authorities insisted the structure was well inside Kyrgyzstan, and they dispatched border guards to repel the demolition attempt. Quick-thinking officials were able to prevent potential bloodshed by brokering a provisional agreement to open the dam and replenish the Tajik canals.

While the water may be flowing again, the bad blood between Tajiks and Kyrgyz in the area continues to linger. For much of April and May, officials from both countries verbally sniped at each other. Kyrgyz diplomats accused the Tajiks of a border violation; Tajik officials responded with charges that Kyrgyzstan's construction of the dam violated a bilateral agreement that prohibited the cultivation of and construction on disputed land.

Water worries, a lingering effect of last winter's severe weather, are heightening border-related tension. Many Central Asian residents are extremely concerned about potential water shortages for the growing season, as a far higher level of water in Kyrgyz and Tajik reservoirs was used up for electricity generation during the cold winter months. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Tension is now palpable in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In many villages and small towns, irrigating agricultural fields has become an acute problem. In early May, residents of Aravan, a Kyrgyz town located near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border and populated mainly by ethnic Uzbeks, demonstrated in front of a local government building. The Aravan locals demanded that Kyrgyz officials increase water supplies to Uzbek-populated villages. "If we do not get enough water, we will not be able to cultivate land and grow crops. We will go hungry in winter," a farmer in Aravan told EurasiaNet.

The deterioration of local mediation systems is exacerbating tension created by the scarcity of water resources. According to local experts in Batken, the dam confrontation developed into a crisis in large part because Kyrgyz authorities failed to inform their Tajik counterparts about the construction of the dam.

The volatile border situation is prompting officials in Bishkek and Dushanbe to take action. During a May 16 meeting, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Tajik President Imomali Rahmon formed an interstate council to improve coordination and accelerate efforts to delimitate the border. They also agreed to ban agricultural use and construction on disputed territories.

"Incomplete delimitation of borders and the porous nature of borders have become the source of water and territorial disputes, illegal use of land and pastures, illegal migration, customs and border conflicts," Bakiyev told journalists before the meeting.

Since 2002, a Tajik-Kyrgyz inter-governmental commission has managed to identify about 71 land plots totaling roughly 21 square kilometers that are claimed by both countries. Even so, Kyrgyz and Tajik officials have not made much progress on their status. The presence of two Tajik enclaves on Kyrgyz territory, Warukh and western Qalacha, are among the toughest dilemmas facing negotiators.

Kyrgyz authorities are hoping that by accelerating the delimitation process, they will reduce ethnic tension and improve inter-state commerce. They are also hoping to hamper illegal migration. According to Kyrgyz press reports, in recent years, many Tajik citizens have illegally acquired land in the Batken Province, as many Kyrgyz residents have abandoned the economically depressed region.

It's not just Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that continue to haggle over borders. Both counties also have long-running disputes with Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek-Kyrgyz state commission has already completed the delimitation of 1,050 kilometers out of the 1,395-kilometer-long Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. But the two countries continue to disagree on the ownership of 58 land parcels. The presence of the Uzbek enclave Sokh on the Kyrgyz territory and the Kyrgyz enclave Barak within Uzbekistan is further complicating the delimitation process. Cumbersome customs checkpoints and frequent harassment by ill-trained border guards have left residents of these enclaves feeling isolated.

Meanwhile, the ongoing problems concerning Tajik-Uzbek border delimitation was underscored in late April, when 31 schoolchildren from Soghd Province who were reportedly out picking rhubarb in an area with a fuzzily defined frontier was taken into custody by Uzbek security forces. Uzbek authorities maintained the children were detained well within Uzbek territory. The children explained that there were no signs to indicate that they had crossed the border. While younger students were released within a few hours, Uzbek authorities held six Tajik 11th graders for more than two weeks on suspicion of drug trafficking.

A lack of funding has greatly hindered border demarcation efforts. In 2007, for instance, the Kyrgyz legislature allocated just 8 million som (roughly $219,000) for border delimitation – not nearly enough to meet all the needs. Although specific data is lacking, experts believe Tajik government spending on border issues is roughly equivalent to that authorized by Bishkek.

Observers warn that, despite pressing needs, border delimitation requires precision and not hasty agreements. Ill-considered deals now could leave residents in disputed border zones discontented, and thereby sow seeds for future conflicts, analysts add.

Conflict prevention experts in South Kyrgyzstan say the best near-term response to rising tension would be to enhance local communication channels. Non-governmental organization initiatives designed to foster such cross-border understanding, though, are having a hard time attracting funds from both local governments and international donors.

An Osh-based worker for South Kyrgyzstan Monitoring Network, a conflict prevention organization, told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. "Conflict prevention is in decline these days," the activist said. "Governments are preoccupied with other problems [and] international donors do not think it is as important as several years ago. We are now left to ourselves."

Alisher Khamidov is a doctoral candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

Ferghana Valley: Harsh Winter's Legacy Stokes Ethnic Tension

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