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

Border Dispute Threatens to Escalate

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are refusing to compromise over a land dispute threatening to trigger a new conflict between the two countries.
By Sultan Jumagulov

The second meeting of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek inter-government commission on trade and other economic issues was held in Bishkek on May 5. The two sides discussed an increase in economic relations, the easing of the visa regulations and interstate transport communications. They also reached agreement on some aspects of bilateral trade.


The thorny problems over border demarcation were not on the agenda. The latest round of border talks held in April this year ended in deadlock, with each side stubbornly pushing for their own solution.


The border talks, which followed discussions initiated by the Kyrgyz government at the beginning of this year, have deepened the atmosphere of mistrust between the two countries.


Bishkek raised the border issue after Uzbekistan unilaterally defined its frontiers with its neighbour in October last year. Approximately fifty armed men penetrated deep into the Kadamjaisky region of Kyrgyzstan and set up border fences. A similar incident took place in the Arabansky region.


The Uzbek authorities said they acted to strengthen their borders after a series of terrorist bombings in Tashkent and incursions of Islamic gunmen into southern Kyrgyzstan last year.


As Uzbekistan has the stronger military force, the frontier is presently enforced by Uzbek soldiers, supported by customs officials.


Unofficial statistics reveal that Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are in dispute over hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. One of the main areas of contention are two relatively large Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyzstan - Sokh and Shakhimardan. Tashkent hasn't hidden its claim to a large stretch of Kyrgyz territory that would join these enclaves to the Uzbek border.


The land disputes, many of which are centered on the densely populated Fergana Valley, began in Soviet times when the political map of Central Asia was twice redrawn in response to endless complaints from competing regional nationalities. The first version of the map, produced between 1924 and 1927, satisfied the Uzbek side, but neighbouring Kyrgyz argued that they lost out.


In 1955, following pressure from Bishkek, Moscow gave in to Kyrgyz demands for another map - which has rankled the Uzbek side ever since. They claim that it wasn't approved by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR - and as a result doesn't carry legal force. It was this second map that was used right up until the fall of the USSR in 1991. Historian, Arslan Koichiev, believes that the main reason for the endless land, water and border debates are to be found in Leninist national policy, under which borders were demarcated with little regard to ethnic and national groups.


Kyrgyz journalist Abdykerim Muratov says that the short-sighted policy of Moscow has led to enormous problems. In order to support cotton production in Uzbekistan, the Soviet authorities not only funded the construction of reservoirs on Kyrgyz territory, but transferred some Kyrgyz land to Uzbekistan to build hydro-electric power plants. To make the situation even more complicated, one of the biggest reservoirs was loaned to Tashkent, which is reluctant to discuss its return. Moscow has agreed to compensate Kyrgyzstan with land, but Bishkek feels the offer is insufficient.


As a result of Soviet policy there isn't a single state in the region, which doesn't today make territorial claims on its neighbours. Despite efforts by Soviet censors to hide the evidence of historical border conflicts, it's well known that water and land quarrels led to direct confrontation, with loss of life. The violent riots in Osh in 1990 demonstrated the levels of hostility between two ethnic groups over a couple of patches of land. The problem was unresolved then and current attempts by the two countries to settle border disputes are not looking good.


It is ordinary people who pay the highest price for the deadlock. A long-distance truck driver, Kalmurat Yuldashev, from the town of Jalal-Abad in southern Kyrgyzstan, says, "My nationality is Uzbek, but I'm a citizen of Kyrgyzstan. I've got a lot of relatives in Uzbekistan. Under the Soviets we were like one family - we would visit each other almost every week. Everything changed after the Tashkent explosions. There are checks everywhere. People turn up with machine-guns, and they don't want to understand anyone else, even though we all speak the same language."


No one yet knows how the confrontation between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan will end. Salamat Alamanov, the man in charge of a Kyrgyz state body charged with negotiating the dispute, believes only a patient and balanced approach to the problem will avert a new conflict. "Hurried resolutions to border issues will lead to blood flowing for centuries, " he says. "That's why border issues are resolved over decades, if not centuries."


Uzbekistan, with its population of 25 million and vast stores of natural resources, is the accepted leader in Central Asia. It has the region's largest and most advanced army. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, with its modest economic potential and 4.5 million people, can't compete with its threatening neighbour. Inevitably, then, it is forced to bow to pressure from Uzbekistan.


One possible solution for Kyrgyzstan is to become economically stronger. It can do this by exploiting its trump card - its democratic image - to attract foreign aid and build up its industrial and agricultural output. However, the process may be undermined by recent political events. Following parliamentary elections at the beginning of the year, opposition politicians were prevented from taking their seats in the assembly and some were arrested.


For the moment, the big fear is of growing tensions in the Fergana Valley. With its mixed, impoverished population of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks and high number of land disputes, this region could trigger a conflict between the two countries.


Sultan Jumagulov is a correspondent for the Asaba newspaper in Bishkek.