The Borders of Eternal Friendship: Kyrgyz-Uzbek Relations in 1999
The first article in this three-part series (posted 12/08/99) described the course of the Spring Border Crisis between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in early 1999, and examined the effects on the population of the Kyrgyzstani part of the Ferghana Valley and the response of the Kyrgyzstani political opposition. This second part continues investigating the multiple implications of this crisis by looking at its effects on internal Kyrgyzstani ethnic tensions and the official responses of both Bishkek and Tashkent.
Rising Ethnic Tension
The border crisis also raised inter-ethnic tensions within Kyrgyzstan, stirring concern particularly among Kyrgystani Uzbeks. A common sentiment expressed among Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan was that not only were they regarded somewhat suspiciously by Krygyz in Kyrgyzstan but that now they also did not feel welcome in Uzbekistan. The independent Osh Uzbek newspaper 'Mezon' voiced publicly the insecurity which many were talking about privately: "The Uzbeks are scared: scared that we will now no longer be able to go to Uzbekistan to see our relatives and loved ones."
At the same time, Kyrgyzstani parliamentary deputies, citing the border crisis, expressed fears about immigration from neighboring countries. In April, an opposition newspaper criticized visiting OSCE High Commissioner for Ethnic Minorities Max van der Stoel, suggesting that inter-ethnic conflict prevention efforts were effectively favouring ethnic Uzbeks. "If this gentleman really wants to help [minorities suffering discrimination]", said an editorial in the Aalam newspaper, "...let him go to Uzbekistan" to see the poor state of the Kyrgyz there.
The Uzbekistani Media Response
The spring border crisis was a subject largely avoided by the Uzbekistani press until a hostage-taking incident carried out by armed opponents of the Uzbekistani leadership, occuring in the remote Kyrgyzstani regions of Batken and Chong-Alai unfolded in August. The Batken incident increased the strain on bilateral relations, as Kyrgyzstan found itself squeezed between president Karimov and his opponents. The incident also supported the assertions made by Kyrgyzstan's political opposition that the country's borders were not properly protected.
Uzbekistani television severely criticized Kyrgyzstan's handling of the Batken events, doubting whether any country could be called independent which was not able to secure its own borders. One report on the 'Yoshlar' channel portrayed the Batken hostage takers as wolves, switching between shots of them hunting and sneaking around woodlands to pictures of armed, bearded terrorists. Domestic political concerns may have played a role in the harsh media coverage of events. The criticism aimed at discrediting Kyrgyzstan may have been intended to undermine assertions made by prominent Uzbek opposition leader Mohammad Solih, who said, using Kyrgyzstan as his example, that if Uzbekistan embraced democracy it might lead to greater freedom and produce greater stability. President Karimov, on the other hand, has frequently stated that hasty movements towards democracy could lead to a Tajik-style civil war. Whatever the motivation for the Uzbek media coverage of Bakten, the result was that it further strained relations between the two states.
Kyrgyz Government Caution
The response of the Kyrgyz government, unwilling to make an enemy of president Karimov, was conciliatory. In an interview in late March Vice Prime Minister Boris Silaev praised Karimov for his important role in regional security. Government newspapers and television promoted president Akaev's 'Silk Road Diplomacy' initiative, stressing regional co-operation in the effort to revive ancient trade routes through China and Central Asia.
Thus while prospects for co-operation were appearing increasingly improbable, the leaders of the states were painting a picture of harmony and good will. This was symbolized by the bizarre grand opening of the new Dostlik ('friendship') border post in April, to which the local Osh administration was invited. It was built to control a once open border, but was celebrated as a new stage in the development of friendship and inter-connections between the two peoples.
The Kyrgyz government was also anxious to deal with the border problem. A parliamentary debate behind closed doors was called to discuss the border issue, with Defense Minister Myrzakan Subanov reporting that Uzbekistan had built 27 new military posts along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border since 1996. Following this debate, President Akaev signed a law 'On The Kyrgyz Republic's External Border' on March 19. The law stressed the inviolability of the border and empowering a commission to demarcate it. On the same day he signed another law detailing the role and task of the border guards.
The government had been acting on the issue for some years and since 1996 had signed various agreements on border demarcation with China, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. A government expert on the issue, C. Alamanov, defended the government in mid May against charges of inaction on the issue, explaining that demarcation was extremely complicated in mountainous areas and international protocols had to be followed. The border was a 'living organism' which had to be handled carefully.
As the intensity of the debate over the spring border crisis cooled, the government newspaper Kyrgyz Tyysy in late June was upbeat in praising the steps taken- "Night and day, in heat and cold, the guards are keeping the border safe." Events later in the summer in Batken proved these words to be premature. In response to this new crisis a new oblast was formed, Batken, to aid control of the border by locating administration locally rather than in distant Osh. Along with reforms of the armed forces and the reinforcement of the border, the government hoped that these actions will be enough to deter further attacks in the future. Only time will tell whether this latest optimism is better-founded than the earlier.
(To be continued)
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