Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Apricot of Discord

Rumbling dispute in a remote part of Central Asia highlights the potential for conflict over land and water.
By Ainagul Abdrakhmanova

In the mountains that ring the Fergana valley in the heart of Central Asia, land comes at such a premium that minor disputes can quickly blow up into a political war of words, with claims and counterclaims of territorial expansionism.

The latest case involves villagers in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the largely unmarked border that divides them, and some apricot trees.

The view from Kyrgyzstan is simple – Tajiks from the village of Chorku have sneaked over the frontier and planted several hundred trees near the village of Koktash in the Batken region of southern Kyrgyzstan.

Some of the saplings were planted on land that is unquestionably Kyrgyz, local officials say. Others were placed on land that is subject to a territorial dispute between the two countries’ governments.

There are over 70 such disputed areas dotted along their border, much of which passes through high mountains. Last year the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments agreed not to allow these areas to be used until the lengthy process of demarcating the frontier has been completed, but the farmers who live there appear to be ignoring this decision.

Local officials and ordinary people accuse their Tajik neighbours of quietly taking over their land, planting crops, grazing their animals and even building houses.

In the case of Koktash, the local Kyrgyz authorities stepped in at the end of February, uprooting the offending apricot saplings.

The Tajik perspective is rather different. Many of the people IWPR interviewed accepted that in this case, trees had been planted on Kyrgyz territory, but they wanted to stress that neither side was guiltless. Abbas-hajji Yahyekhojaev, deputy mayer of Isfara, the major town on the Tajik side of the border, said people from Kyrgyzstan had planted apricot trees near the Tajik village of Kummazor.

And Yusuf Kurbankhojaev, who heads the non-government organisation Ittifak, said there had been cases where people on the Kyrgyz side of the border had cut into a pipeline supplying water to the town of Shurab, causing a reduced flow.

Although these are minor incidents which pass off without bloodshed, they give rise to some hair-raising predictions from politicians and other leading figures on either side. There is talk of strategic control of water resources, historical claims to the land, and even war.

“The apricot invasion by the Tajiks might lead to a real invasion of Kyrgyz land in the near future, unless the Kyrgyz authorities actually do something and begin seeing the incident as a serious violation of a sovereign state’s territorial integrity,” said Yrysbek Omurzakov, editor-in-chief of the Kyrgyz newspaper Tribuna. “Our authorities must finally learn to protect their territory,” he said.

Ishenbay Abdrazakov, a former secretary of state in Kyrgyzstan, talked about “creeping territorial expansion” in the context of the apricot tree incident.

“Our side is not taking any steps, so Tajiks are continuing to settle on our lands,” Abdrazakov told IWPR. “This is laying the ground for an ethnic conflict, which later might turn into an international one.”

In Tajikistan, Negmatullo Mirsaidov, chief editor of the Varorud news agency, said that “those same Kyrgyz who talk about what they call expansion know in their heart of hearts who some of the territory belongs to…. There is not a shred of evidence from archaeological digs to show these lands belong to the Kyrgyz”.

More immediately, Mirsaidov blames Soviet leaders for drawing arbitrary lines on the map, leaving the current Central Asian states a complex legacy of borders and enclaves.

And he warned that such encroachments were likely to continue, “People are not going to wait until the status of the borderlands is resolved. When there is a shortage of land in frontier areas, farmers are going to try to work unused land, whether we like it or not.”

But Mirsaidov believes the two countries should be able to come to terms. “The sides need to reach an agreement whereby people are free to make use of empty land. It would be for the benefit of both nations,” he said.

Land and water are a recurring theme of past conflicts in the Fergana valley. The area near Samarkandyk, at the western end of the long Tajik-Kyrgyz border, was the scene of violent clashes in 1989 which resulted in several deaths after a territorial and water dispute got out of control. For the rest of the world, this incident was soon overshadowed by brutal violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the nearby city of Osh the following year – but local people did not forget it.

In January 2003, hundreds of people from the Tajik villages of Machai and Chorku ransacked and tore down Kyrgyz frontier posts, and in response Kyrgyz villagers pulled down a recently erected Tajik border checkpoint. Once again, there were mutual recriminations about who started the trouble, and who owned the land.

The lack of clarity about where the border runs should eventually be addressed when government commissions looking at the matter finish their work. They began meeting late in 2003 after a five-year break in negotiations.

Tashbolot Baltabaev, a local member of the Kyrgyz parliament, thinks the border issue will only be solved if the two presidents sign agreements on it.

The current low-level talks are going nowhere fast, Baltabaev says, and “small clashes are flaring up here and there. God forbid that there is a provocation somewhere, and then events will take an unforeseen turn, and clashes with another state will begin, possibly entailing bloodshed”.

Baltabaev sees control over water as the most explosive issue. He warns that if Kyrgyzstan lost control of the Tortkul canal which supplies the whole of its Batken region, and the water was then cut off, the outcome would be “a very serious conflict…. It will be a war”.

“We cannot allow ourselves to become dependant on the Tajiks,” he said.

According to Orozbek Moldaliev, who heads SEDEP, a Kyrgyz non-government organisation looking at regional security issues, “The major problem in the whole of the Fergana valley is the terrible deficit of land.

“All wars have been and will be waged only because of land. In our circumstances, even a tense situation is undesirable since the region is so dangerously explosive.”

Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is an intern with IWPR office in Bishkek. Bakhtior Valiev is a journalist in Khujand.

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