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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[13.08.23] Central Asian Border Tensions: The Worsening Kyrgyz-Uzbek Relations

On July 16 a Kyrgyz civilian was shot dead by Uzbek border guards on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border near the town of Kara-Suu of Kyrgyzstan's Osh province. This is not the first event of this kind between signatories of an "Eternal Friendship" agreement of 1996, but the latest in a long line of incidents. The death of 21-year old Adyljan Urkinbaev highlights the increasing difficulties that local people have been facing from growing isolation and tightening border regimes. While a peaceful resolution of the situation is desperately needed, no cooperative efforts on the part of Bishkek and Tashkent can be seen. In a state of increasing border-related tensions at the local level, the latent tension may easily turn into an open conflict.
BACKGROUND: As the countries of Central Asia gained independence in 1991, areas that had constituted a single economic, social and political system were divided from one another. Boundaries that were of little importance acquired a lot more significance having a striking influence on ordinary lives. One such area is the Ferghana Valley, a multiethnic area unified by common history, culture, social and economic networks, but now spanning parts of three countries - Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz Ferghana Valley, which embraces three southern provinces of Kyrgyzstan - Osh, Jalal-Abad and Batken - for years has been facing a number of economic, political and social challenges. Among them, border-related tensions with Uzbekistan have been particularly acute and have placed an onerous burden on the local population. Complicated border crossing procedures and visa requirements imposed first by Uzbekistan under the pretense of security needs have caused serious hardships for the local population of the Fergana Valley, where life has traditionally been based on joint existence and activities. Requirements for visas, which are normally available in capitals and at a high price, have made cross-border movement and trade for ordinary people an arduous process. Locals that could easily visit friends and relatives just across the borders without any hindrance came to face numerous obstacles.
Besides formalities, people have suffered from harassment and corruption among border guards and customs officials. The incursions made by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000 as well as the fight against terrorism and religious extremism have led to tighter border regimes causing more problems to the local people and making the already tough border issues even more difficult to resolve. In 1999, shortly after the IMU incursions, Uzbek air strikes launched on the Kyrgyz village of Karateyit killed seven people, wounded 13, and created large material damages. The same year, Uzbekistan started to safeguard its security by taking unilateral measures such as laying mines on its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on territories that were yet to be demarcated. The minefields created new tensions in Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations as they not only resulted in significant economic losses by killing livestock, but also caused deaths and injuries to Kyrgyz locals. Since 1999, there were 14 cases of mine blowing on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, as a result of which three people were killed, three were seriously wounded, and many people were deprived of their livestock.
IMPLICATIONS: What is striking is that Uzbekistan has at times imposed restrictive border regimes not for the sake of security interests per se, but for other interests such as safeguarding the country's projectionist economic policies. The recent incident is an example. The victim was a local man who earned a living by leading people on a wooden footbridge across the river Sharkansai. Despite objections among locals in 2000, Uzbekistan dismantled the bridge over this river, which used to unite the Kara-Suu town of the Osh province with the neighboring rayon of Uzbekistan. The closure of the bridge caused serious impediments to economic relations in the region, and forced residents of Kara-Suu to make a 40-kilometer detour to travel through the official border crossing. Locals then started to use the footbridge in order to avoid complex and time-consuming border-crossing procedures to trade and visit relatives on the other side of the border. Although official Tashkent explained the dismantlement of the bridge as a quarantine restriction to contain a flu epidemic and as an additional security measure, locals have been citing an attempt to stop the outflow of Uzbek currency to Kara-Suu as the underlying cause, as Kara-Suu has one of the biggest and the most popular markets in the Fergana Valley. A number of people have drowned while trying to make the crossing. Thus apart from increasing obstacles to cross-border cooperation and trade, excessive border restrictions have become threatening to people's lives. The latest incident is unlikely to force any breakthrough to ease the difficulties on the border. The Kyrgyz government responded by sending a protest note to the Uzbek government just as it did when another Kyrgyz citizen was killed by Uzbek border guards last autumn. The incident seems to intensify the diplomatic tensions between Bishkek and Tashkent. For the past two weeks, both governments have exchanged protest notes. The Uzbek side, besides blaming the Kyrgyz authorities for the incident by having allowed an illegal border crossing, is also blaming it for prolonging the process of border delimitation.
Although Bishkek threatens to 'take appropriate measures' after each such incident, it has actually adopted an indifferent approach, unwilling to jeopardize its relations with its neighbor. As the region's most populous and militarily most powerful state with strengthening ties with the United States since the war on terrorism, Uzbekistan has been using its relative strength to exert pressure on and ignore the demands of its neighbors. Uzbekistan has so far refused and at best ignored Kyrgyzstan's demands to punish Uzbek border guards, who are alleged to take up arms at the slightest provocation and accused of brutal treatment of civilians. The repeated requests and later demands of Bishkek to hand over the map of the minefields have so far also been successfully ignored. Given the continuing 'blame game' between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, a compromise any time soon seems unlikely. The deterioration of Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations as a result of border-related issues may not only hinder the demarcation process of disputed thousands of square miles, but may also increase the potential for conflict in the region.
CONCLUSION: There is an urgent need to open up borders and encourage cross-border cooperation in Central Asia, especially in Fergana Valley. It is the local population that has suffered first and foremost from the increasingly tightening border regimes imposed in the name of security. Constructive measures from both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek government are desperately needed. External pressure on the two governments to loosen border restrictions and open the way for regional cooperation could speed up this process. Given the difficult economic and social situation in the region, only a conciliatory and cooperative approach can prevent local tensions from gathering steam and turning into a major conflict in the long term.
By Gulzina Karim kyzy,
Central Asia -Caucasus Analyst, August 13, 2003

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