Two months ago, revolutionary developments in Kyrgyzstan sent shockwaves rumbling through neighboring Uzbekistan, placing Uzbek President Islam Karimov's administration on guard against a popular revolt. Now, it is Kyrgyzstan's provisional leadership that is growing nervous about the impact of the Uzbek government's crackdown in Andijan. Felix Kulov, a key member of the Kyrgyz leadership team, has voiced concern of a spillover effect, amid unconfirmed reports that Kyrgyzstani citizens participated in the Andijan events.
A touchstone of tension is the estimated 1,500 Uzbek refugees who crossed into Kyrgyzstan to escape the May 13 assault carried out by Uzbek security forces. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Uzbek officials have said they expect the refugees to return in the near future. Many of those who fled have voiced a desire to stay, saying they would face arrest and, possibly torture, if they fell into the hands of Uzbek security forces.
At a May 17 news conference, Karimov suggested that many of the Uzbeks who found refuge in Kyrgyzstan were Islamic militants, stating that Kyrgyz border guards collected "73 assault rifles" from the refugees. "After this, you can judge what kind of refugees they were," Karimov told the assembled diplomats and journalists. A spokesman for Kyrgyzstan's border guards disputed Karimov's claim, insisting that the refugees "did not carry any weapons," the Ferghana.ru website reported May 19.
A new point of tension is the Uzbek government's claim, made May 17, that Kyrgyz citizens took part in the Andijan events, which Karimov insists was ignited by Islamic militants. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Uzbek Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov claimed that two Kyrgyzstani nationals were killed during the Andijan events and five Kyrgyzstanis had been taken into Uzbek custody.
The Andijan events, and the accompanying rise in Kyrgyz-Uzbek tension, threaten to compound the Kyrgyz provisional government's stabilization challenges. Bakiyev's team has struggled to restore order in Kyrgyzstan since the March 24 revolution toppled Askar Akayev's administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Now, on top of existing problems, including the seizures of land in and around Bishkek by squatters, the provisional government faces the prospect of rising social instability in southern provinces, which have sizable ethnic Uzbek minorities. There is growing concern that prolonged unrest in Uzbekistan could possibly stir inter-ethnic tension in southern Kyrgyzstan, and/or fan Islamic radical sentiment among ethnic Uzbeks in Osh and Jalal-abad provinces. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In Moscow for meetings with Russian officials, Kulov admitted that "there is a certain amount of anxiety and apprehension [in Bishkek] over the consequences of events in Andijan," the Interfax news agency reported May 18. The Uzbek claim that ethnic Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan participated in the Andijan events was being "carefully verified," Kulov added.
For now, Kyrgyz leaders appear reluctant to do anything that might rile Uzbek leaders further. Although Kyrgyz officials have indicated that the country will be accepting of more Uzbek refugees, Bakiyev said May 18 that as soon as conditions in Uzbekistan "stabilized," the refugees should go home. While Kyrgyz leaders seem conciliatory towards Tashkent, Kyrgyzstani rights activists and student groups continue to protest the Uzbek government's crackdown. Student protesters, including activists from the Kel-Kel group, staged a demonstration outside the Uzbek embassy in Bishkek on May 19, denouncing Uzbekistan as a "police state," Ferghana.ru reported.
Beyond the possibility of destabilizing fallout from the Andijan events spreading into southern Kyrgyzstan, recent developments could easily exacerbate long-standing Kyrgyz-Uzbek border issues. Approximately 40 sectors of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border have not yet been delineated. In addition, the two countries have been unable to agree on a framework that would provide for the equitable distribution of scarce resources -- especially water and arable land in the border area, as well as ease the cross-border flow of individuals and goods.
Frustration among those living in border regions is running high. For example, a clash involving Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens occurred May 3 near the Uzbek exclave of Sokh, an island of Tashkent's territory surrounded by Kyrgyzstan's Batken Province. Sokh residents reportedly broke a water pipe that supplied two Kyrgyz villages Charbak and Sogment and destroyed three cars during the riot. In addition, three Kyrgyz citizens were reportedly injured. A potentially more serious incident was averted the next day, when reinforced contingents of Uzbek and Kyrgyz security forces intervened.
Adylbek Shadymanov, Batken's deputy governor, characterized Uzbek citizens residents of Hushiyar, a village within the Sokh exclave as the aggressors during the May 3 incident. However, local non-governmental organization representatives said the Hushiyar villagers, who are mainly ethnic Tajiks, were reacting to harassment carried out by Kyrgyz customs officials. The violence supposedly occurred after two Hushiyar residents required hospitalization after being physically abused by Kyrgyz authorities, according to one account.
The claims and counterclaims made by those living in and around Sokh will not be easily untangled, suggested Robert Avazbekov, a local activist for an NGO called Foundation Tolerance International, which seeks to promote mutual understanding among Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens in the Batken area. "Hushiyar residents want free access to pastures located on Kyrgyz territory. They also want fairer distribution of water ... and the removal of [Kyrgyz] border posts," Avazbekov explained. "Kyrgyz residents, in turn, want free passage through Hushiyar, which separates the two villages [Charbak and Sogment]. Kyrgyz also want [Uzbek citizens] to pay tax for the use of [Kyrgyz] pastures."
Altogether there are three Uzbek exclaves lying within Kyrgyzstan, and seven Kyrgyz exclaves surround by Uzbek territory. Residents of the exclaves are frequent targets of extortion and abuse committed by border officials. Given that the region has been a theater of Islamic militant operations in the past, both countries, Uzbekistan in particular, have tightened frontier security procedures, prompting complaints by local residents of long delays at border-crossing points.
Uzbekistan has sought to establish land corridors that would ease access for exclave residents to the Uzbek mainland. In 2001, Kyrgyz officials agreed in principle to the opening of a land corridor connecting Sokh to Uzbekistan proper, but the strong public outcry against the territorial transfer forced Bishkek to back-peddle. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
With Uzbek and Kyrgyz officials now focused on the Andijan fallout, frustration among residents in the border zone could again ignite. "The situation remains tense [in and around Sokh]. Future developments depend on how authorities respond," said Avazbekov, the NGO activist.
Alisher Khamidov Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.