Border issues continue to ruffle relations among Central Asian states, with Uzbekistan playing a central role in many of the disputes. In particular, Tashkent's practice of mining its borders has faced growing criticism in recent weeks.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been the most vocal critic of the Uzbek mining policy, which Tashkent asserts is a key pillar of its anti-terrorism strategy. The chief of Tajikistan's Mine Action Center, Jonmahmad Rajabov, said the Uzbek policy had done far more harm to civilians, than to alleged terrorists. He added that mines have caused over 120 Tajik casualties since 2000, 62 of whom died. "Tashkent justifies its actions by the need to protect its border from infiltration by international terrorists, but only Tajik civilians have died from mines so far," Rajabov told reporters February 3.
Helping to fan mine-related tension is the fact that long stretches of Uzbekistan's frontier with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are not properly demarcated. Rajabov alleged that Uzbekistan had mined "even those sections of the border which the Uzbekistani side considers [our] territory."
Kyrgyz officials largely concur with the Tajik view. Many in Bishkek complain that Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government has effectively refused to engage neighboring states in a search for a mutually satisfactory solution to the mine issue. At an early February conference in Tashkent, titled Regional Security in Central Asia, Kyrgyz officials pressed Tashkent to be more responsive.
"We understand that raising this issue may not be to the liking of Tashkent, which has for a long time now avoided discussing this subject and has refused to provide maps of mine fields," the Russian daily Kommersant quoted one member of the Kyrgyz delegation as saying. "However, civilians are being blown up ... with, you could say, frightening regularity. ... And we have just stopped counting the number of animals killed by mines."
Compounding the existing danger to civilians in border zones is a lack of accurate maps of minefields. The Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) mission has concluded: "Uzbekistan has so far only sporadically marked minefields laid by its armed forces". The GICHD sponsored a conference on the anti-mining Ottawa Convention from February 9-13. A Kyrgyzstan delegate to the conference reportedly insisted on mining parts of its border with Uzbekistan, in part because Tashkent had already laid its own explosives.
The GICHD also criticized Tajikistan for "a generalized reluctance- to mark affected areas, on the basis that it is the responsibility of Uzbekistan to mark the minefields it lays." The International Committee to Ban Landmines has cited this research in its assessment of Tajikistan, noting that the impasse in discussions between the two countries puts "shepherds and people engaged in hunting, collecting wood, and traveling to visit relatives" at heightened risk of injury or death.
Beyond the land mine issue, poorly demarcated frontiers are in themselves a source of friction. Uzbekistan in recent weeks has assailed Kyrgyzstan for supposedly delaying the implementation of a border delimitation agreement that fixes over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) of the two states' common frontier. Tashkent had wanted the agreement to take effect by November of last year. Kyrgyz officials, however, want to define a separate 256-kilometer stretch of frontier before the border agreement takes effect.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry on February 20 announced that it was Tashkent's "firm intention to complete the delimitation of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border as soon as possible." The Uzbek Foreign Ministry implied that Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev had misled Uzbek officials during bilateral talks held in Bishkek in mid-February. Kyrgyz media reports described Tanayev as expressing "dissatisfaction" with Uzbekistan's "border approach," the Uzbek Foreign Ministry statement noted. "At the meeting, neither side gave an evaluation of the process of the process of delimitation," the Uzbek statement asserted.
Kyrgyz politicians bristle over what they characterize as Uzbekistan's desire to act as the "elder brother" in Central Asia. "Official documents draw one picture and reality draws a completely different one," Kyrgyz MP Oksana Malevanaya complained in an interview with the Bishkek newspaper Obshestvennii Rating.
Though united in criticizing Uzbekistan on the mine issue, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are bickering among themselves about border issues. Kyrgyz officials, for example, have long accused Tajiks of encroaching on Kyrgyz territory. A February 12 report in Obshestvennii Rating said that Kyrgyz government efforts "to stop Tajik citizens from unlawfully developing Kyrgyz lands" were not succeeding in sections of southern Batken province.
Although border-related tension is high, Central Asian states seem to want to set it aside in order to focus on strengthening trade ties. During a recent visit to Tashkent, Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov stressed the need to improve regional trade, adding that Dushanbe accorded a special place to Uzbekistan among its trade partners. Nazarov's Uzbek counterpart, Sadyk Safayev, reciprocated, expressing a desire for a strengthening of bilateral relations. Since the start of 2004, there has been a "significant" improvement in Tajik-Uzbek economic relations, Tajik radio reported February 18. The report added that in early February Uzbekistan began expanding fuel and natural gas supplies to Tajikistan following the resolution of a debt payment dispute.
By Kambiz Arman,
Eurasianet, February 25, 2004