Uzbekistan, citing security concerns connected with Islamic radicalism, has sought to curtail cross-border traffic with neighboring states, especially Kyrgyzstan. Local inhabitants on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, however, have not accepted stricter border controls. In some areas, inhabitants continue to go to great lengths to circumvent existing restrictions.
In recent years, Uzbek authorities have consistently attempted to seal the country’s frontier as part of their response to the increasing activity of radical groups – including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In rural areas, the Uzbek military has sown landmines in an effort to prevent illegal incursions. Along many transit routes, meanwhile, Uzbek authorities have literally placed obstacles in the way of vehicular traffic.
The Uzbek tendency toward a stricter border regime has intensified in the wake of the late March attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara. Throughout the government’s struggle to contain Islamic radical activity, President Islam Karimov has often blamed his neighbors’ lax policies as a major source of Uzbekistan’s problems. Among Karimov’s chief targets of criticism has been Kyrgyzstan. Possibly in response to such criticism, Kyrgyz officials announced the adoption of a resolution designed to promote a new "border regime," the Kabar news agency reported May 20.
Rather than accept the tighter border-crossing regulations, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz alike have become more adept at evasion. This lack of acceptance is often driven by economic necessity, as many living in border areas continue to derive income from so-called shuttle trading. Border-trading tricks employed range from very traditional to unorthodox. In one village, for example, while Uzbek border guards do not allow cars through, they wave horse or donkey-carts across, and so this form of transport has skyrocketed. In another village, men smuggle goods into Uzbekistan over the river by horseback when the current is low.
Cross-border commerce has even been restored at the Kyrgyz trading center of Kara-Suu, where Uzbek authorities destroyed two bridges that spanned a canal separating the town from Uzbekistan. Local residents have established rope bridges, and in one case, a pulley system, to get people and goods across the frontier. Such methods have proven dangerous, however, as several would-be smugglers have reportedly slipped into the canal and drowned.
Illicit trade is often carried on with the collusion of border guards and customs officials, who are eager to supplement their low incomes with bribes. Gulnoza, an Osh resident who travels regularly to Uzbekistan, said that even after the supposed border closure following the Tashkent bombings in March 2004, it was easy to bypass the border controls. Uzbek guards had put a plank over a stream, and "stood there taking 100 som from anyone who wanted to cross."
A recent EurasiaNet investigative report revealed that similar corruption exists along the Uzbek border with Kazakhstan, a popular destination for Uzbek shoppers and cotton smugglers. The shuttle transactions suck millions of dollars out of the Uzbek economy each year. Officially, Tashkent pretends not to notice, citing statistics in early 2004 that showed its economy experiencing steady growth.
In some cases, Kyrgyz take advantage of bureaucratic loopholes to visit Uzbekistan. As one Kyrgyzstani Uzbek said; "To visit family in Tashkent, people tell the Uzbek border guards that we are en route to Kazakhstan, and they can thus obtain transit visas. They spend most of their time in Tashkent, and then take the 20 minute trip to the Kazakh border to get a stamp in their passports, before heading back to Kyrgyzstan."
Barak, a Kyrgyz exclave located in the Fergana Valley and surrounded entirely by Uzbek territory, provides a still more dramatic example of local initiative. After Uzbekistan dug up the road leading from the village to the Kyrgyz town of Ak-Tash in August 1999 and blockaded it with concrete blocks, Barak residents saw their jobs and markets for their agricultural goods disappear. Travel to Kyrgyzstan for weddings, funerals or medical care became close to impossible. With no public transport, the village in effect was cut off from the outside world.
One young man from Barak told EurasiaNet that he had wanted to marry a woman from Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, but her father refused to let her go and live in the exclave. To get around the border, the couple instead eloped, getting their friends to help lift the car and carry it across the ditch that blocked their route, then through the fields to Barak.
Frustrated with these controls, a few hundred villagers - more than half the village’s entire population of 700 people - traveled to Osh in February 2003 to protest Uzbek border restrictions. Within a week, a chance meeting between the protestors and Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev in Osh led to Uzbekistan’s removal of the concrete blocks and the opening of the Barak-Ak Tash road.
Now, with a daily bus service back in operation, smuggling has decreased and a fresh grassroots campaign has begun this time to either open a corridor to Kyrgyzstan to allow villagers unimpeded access or move Barak’s entire population from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan.
By Nick Solly Megoran,
Eurasianet, May 25, 2004