Bad Fences Make Kyrgyz, Uzbeks Nervous Neighbours

Poorly delineated frontier compounded by fraught political relationship.

Bad Fences Make Kyrgyz, Uzbeks Nervous Neighbours

Poorly delineated frontier compounded by fraught political relationship.

Recent spats on the Kyrgyz frontier with Uzbekistan have highlighted the volatility of relations along parts of this long and winding border.

In two separate incidents, a dispute or misunderstanding quickly led to a confrontation involving local civilians and border guards.

On January 17, Kyrgyz border guards in the village of Chek, which is divided by the frontier, challenged a two-man patrol of their Uzbek counterparts, accusing them of being on the wrong side of the border. According to a statement by the Kyrgyz border guards’ press office, a group of Uzbek locals gathered, stones were thrown, more Uzbek border troops arrived on the scene, and a Kyrgyz border guard was shot and injured.

The deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s border guards service, Colonel Cholponbek Turusbekov told IWPR that he met his Uzbek counterparts to discuss the issue on January 18, and that they denied that their men had crossed out of their own territory.

This meeting followed close on the heels of another one between Uzbek and Kyrgyz officials held on January 6 – to sort out another incident four days earlier, in which two border guards from Kyrgyzstan were seized by Uzbek villagers and taken into police custody.

Turusbekov said that while patrolling in the village of Aktam, two Kyrgyz border guards spotted some livestock that they identified as belonging to people on the other side. Like the village of Chek, Aktam, in Kyrgyzstan’s jalalabad region, is divided by a river from its counterpart Oktam, in the Uzbek region of Andijan.

Under orders to drive such animals back into Uzbekistan, the soldiers were surrounded by 15 to 20 angry villagers. “Facing a threat to their lives, the border guards were forced to fire several warning shots into the air,” said Turusbekov.

The Uzbek villagers then disarmed the two men and took them to a police station, where they were held until January 6.

Elena Ivanova, the head of Egida Shans, a human rights group in Kyrgyzstan, visited the area afterwards and explained to IWPR why this ill-defined stretch of frontier was the source of so much aggravation.

Aktam/Oktam used to be one village, but after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 it was decided that the river running right though it would form the border between the two newly-created republics. But as Ivanova pointed out, this section of the frontier is not marked off or fenced, so animals often stray across.

She said that in this case, the Uzbek villagers were incensed because they suspected the Kyrgyz soldiers were about to “arrest” their cows.

“Our border guards often take animals further inside Kyrgyz territory and then demand money from their owners or ‘detain’ the animals,” she said.

The two latest incidents are reminiscent of another confrontation last year, which blew up into a diplomatic row. When Uzbek police raided homes – again in Chek – in April 2009, the foreign ministry in Bishkek accused them of singling out Kyrgyz nationals.

The issue caused a storm in Kyrgyzstan’s media, which missed the point, made by the Uzbek authorities, that the police action took place inside Uzbekistan’s half of the village, so there was no territorial encroachment. (See Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border Incident Sparks Political Row, RCA No. 577, 15-May-09.)

An Uzbek who gave his first name as Sherzod, from the city of Namangan, said confrontations over livestock grazing rights were common in border areas.

“The thing is that there’s a large amount of unused pastureland in Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbeks have a lot of livestock,” he explained.

In Soviet times, the administrative boundaries between republics did not matter much, and since then, farmers have found it hard to adjust. Uzbeks still think they can go into Kyrgyz territory and graze their animals as they always did. To water their livestock, said Sherzod, they continue to use “streams that have been used in common for centuries”, wherever they lie.

According to Odiljon, a resident of Andijan region, things have got worse over the last four or five years, with Kyrgyz border guards growing increasingly intolerant of Uzbek-owned livestock straying over the border.

“It didn’t use to be like that,” he said. “The Kyrgyz were OK about Uzbeks who grazed their animals on their territory.”

These days, said Odiljon, even when Uzbek nationals travel into Kyrgyzstan via the authorised crossing points, they are subject to thorough questioning about where they are going and the purpose of their trip.

“Animosity is increasing on both sides, and ordinary people are suffering,” he added.

Colonel Turusbekov acknowledged that customary land and grazing rights often lay at the root of frontier tensions. “The situation becomes tense during the spring irrigation and harvest seasons,” he added.

As Turusbekov pointed out, reaching agreement about to share land and water is hard when it is unclear exactly where the frontier runs.

The 1,400 kilometres of Uzbek-Kyrgyz frontier loop round and through the Fergana Valley, and to date 900 kilometres of its route have been agreed and demarcated. Many of the problems occur on the unmarked sections.

Thirteen areas remain formally disputed, and are the subject of negotiations by an inter-governmental demarcation commission.

However, the commission resumed work only recently after a five-years break, with a meeting in Tashkent at the end of December.

Colonel Turusbekov predicts there will be more friction until the frontier is finally agreed along all its length.

The frequent tensions, and the ever-present risk that a local stand-off will escalate into something more serious, reflect the fraught political relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan at national level.

“When relations are strained between the presidents, it has an impact in principally on residents of border regions, and affects the attitude of border guards to ordinary people,” said Abdusalom Ergashev, a human rights activist from the Uzbek city of Fergana.

Ergashev fears there is little will to improve the situation, “On the contrary, border guards and police are being given more rights to treat people in this lawless manner.”

One of the pressure points in Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations is the use of water for energy production. Uzbekistan opposes Kyrgyz plans to build hydroelectric plants, fearing that new dams will reduce the flow of water down the Syr Darya waterway to its own agricultural sector.

Last year saw Bishkek taking further steps towards realising its energy projects, which provoked warnings from Tashkent that the work could not go ahead unless the interests of other Central Asian states were weighed up as well.

The Uzbek leadership was further angered by reports last July that the Russian military was planning to station troops in southern Kyrgyzstan under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a post-Soviet security grouping. The Uzbeks were clearly unhappy about having a mobile force of foreign troops on their doorstep.

Despite such political tensions and the daily irritants of being stopped and hassled on the border, people living on either side travel across frequently to visit relatives or to buy and sell goods and farm produce.

“People in Kyrgyz border regions depend on the supply of fruit and vegetables from Uzbekistan, and enterprising Kyrgyz make a business out of trading in them, bribing the border guards to be able to cross the border,” said Ivanova.

Kamila Abdullaeva is a pseudonym for a journalist in Uzbekistan; Ilya Lukashov is a freelance journalist in Kyrgyzstan and Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR Kyrgyz editor in Bishkek.

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