In March, officials from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were at one another’s throats over a border dispute. But a month is a long time in frontier politics.
With moods now significantly calmed, representatives from both countries’ border services met on April 18 to discuss the recent discovery of an illegal cross-frontier smugglers’ tunnel.
Russian state-run news service Sputnik reported that the meeting took place at the “Uzbekistan” border crossing and organized at Tashkent’s instigation.
The underground passage discovered in March led from the village of Burbolik in Uzbekistan’s Altyaryk District to the village of Kyrgyz-Kyshtak in the Kadamzhai district in the Batken region. Sputnik cited Uzbek officials as saying they are still trying to establish who was running the smuggling operation.
Uzbek news website Podrobno.uz reported in March, that the 120-meter long tunnel was built six meters below ground and was around 70 centimeters wide and more than a meter high.
For all those relatively modest dimensions, Kyrgyz and Uzbek officials believe there is almost no limit to the evil that might have been coursing through the tunnel.
“Both sides are studying the possibility that this structure was being used to transport weapons, ammunition, explosives, unconstitutional literature, narcotics and militants,” Podrobno.uz reported.
The likelihood of “unconstitutional literature” — typically a codeword for religious pamphlets — is perhaps the most risible item on the list, since the Internet would be a far more secure way of conveying such material.
With details so sparse, it is hard to know what to believe, although it seems most likely that the smugglers were seeking to circumvent the complicated border-crossing process that creates headaches for petty traders. Corruption and time-wasting bureaucracy at border crossings serve as a strong incentive for the creation of illegal channels, which can then indeed be used for conveying illicit wares, such as drugs, if not necessarily weapons.
News of this tunnel first surfaced while the countries were at loggerheads over a deployment of Uzbek troops to a contested section of border. Uzbek troops arrived in the area on March 18 and occupied an unmarked section of road linking the Kyrgyz settlements of Kerben and Ala-Buka.
In addition to that Uzbekistan began to deny Kyrgyz citizens passage through two major border crossings, Dostyk and Madaniyat. In retaliation, Kyrgyzstan blocked access to the Baimak, Kensai and Kadamzhai crossings for Uzbek citizens, in effect stranding many people inside enclaves entirely surrounded by Kyrgyz territory.
Tashkent refrained from commenting publicly on the border dispute, but it has been more open about the business with the tunnel, casting the discovery as a blow against terrorist activity.
Minor skirmishes often take place between border guards of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, not to speak of Tajikistan, but governments are anxious to avoid a spillover into serious conflict.
Failure to reach definitive agreements on the border creates substantial difficulties for the local population and their ability to trade. Still, there is some political capital to be gained from keeping things simmering.
“It seems to me that conflict is not advantageous to anybody, although a bit of aggressive rhetoric can be useful, so [the governments] can appear like strong rulers,” Sergei Abashin, a widely respected Russian ethnographer, told EurasiaNet.org.
The border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan stretches across 1,378 kilometers, but only around 1,000 kilometers has been properly demarcated. Around 370 kilometers are subject to continuing disagreement. Uzbekistan has taken the lead in formalizing the borders by digging deep ditches that are closely monitored by well-armed troops, often traveling in U.S.-donated vehicles.
Although the mutual distrust is intense, the tunnel incident has illustrated how the governments can be united by their abiding paranoia of insurgent threats.