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

Breaking Down the Uzbek-Tajik Border Divide

A shooting incident underlines how two neighbouring nations are divided by diplomatic animosity as well as fences.
By Mukammal Odinaev
Continued friction on the border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan reflects attempts by both sides to enforce visa and trade rules and clamp down on smuggling. However, regional analysts say that if obstructive restrictions and sporadic violent incidents are to be reduced, the Tajik and Uzbek governments will have to make more of an effort to get along with each other.

The communities along this long border have traditionally mingled and traded with one other – after all, the international boundary dates only from the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

However, the governments of the two independent countries have had a difficult relationship over the years, with each suspecting its neighbour of harbouring ill intentions and, on occasion, giving sanctuary to armed militants hostile to the other.

That high-level animosity has played out as tighter border and customs restrictions, including the introduction of visa requirements.

After the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant guerrilla group, launched raids from Tajik territory in 1999-2000, the Uzbek military laid mines along parts of the frontier, which killed a number of civilians. The landmines have since been cleared.

Crossing the frontier at the official checkpoints can be a lengthy and humiliating process, and costly, too, because of extortion by customs officer. Many residents of border areas prefer to defy the rules by crossing over illegally to trade, smuggle or visit relatives.

However, they risk being intercepted by the security services, and things occasionally turn violent.

In the latest incident, on November 6, a Tajik national was shot dead on the border between Tajikistan’s Istarafshan district and the Syrdarya region on the other side.

Uzbekistan’s border guards service issued a statement about a week later saying the incident, near the Uzbek village of Karakir, involved a group of 18 Tajik nationals who were attempted to drive a tractor over the frontier loaded with fertilisers they had stolen on the Uzbek side.

The group were, the statement alleged, aided and abetted by two armed Tajik border guards soldiers present on the scene.

The Uzbeks claimed their men fired only warning shots, one of which went astray and killed a man, and that they were responding to aggressive behaviour.

“The Tajik border guards further provoked the incident by using openly threatening gestures and words, and by aggressively demanding that the loaded tractor be allowed to drive into Tajikistan,” said a news agency report of the statement. “In an attempt to protect themselves and contain the incident, one of the Uzbek border guards fired three warning shots in the air. At that moment, he was hit in his chest by a stone [thrown at him], and as a result, Abdullo Ataev, a citizen of Tajikistan, was wounded by a stray bullet. Atayev, 41, died of the gunshot wound."

The Tajik border guards’ press service in the capital Dushanbe confirmed to IWPR that an incident had taken place, but refused to comment on it on the grounds that an investigation was still under way.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Tajik border guard told IWPR a different version of events.

He said the Tajik civilians had already paid off the Uzbek frontier guards so that they could pass unhindered. It was in fact the Tajik border guards who tried to stop them coming across, he said, and this sparked the confrontation.

He said the Tajik frontier service kept quiet about the incident to avoid harming bilateral relations, but he alleged that this only allowed the Uzbeks to get their story out first.

“The Uzbeks killed one of our citizens and took his brother away to their territory, yet they are making accusations against us,” he said indignantly.

Official figures vary widely on the number of incidents in which weapons have been used, but Tajik sources say there have been 15 this year. Last year, two people were killed in border incidents; Ataev seems to have been the first this year.

Sometimes people cross the frontier unwittingly, since there are areas where no one is really aware where it runs. On other occasions, smugglers fall out with the border guards they have bribed, or unexpectedly run into a different patrol.

Corruption is a major issue here, on a border that is one of the routes taken by Afghan’s booming heroin exports en route to consumers in Russia, Europe, and increasingly the Central Asian states themselves.

According to Tajikistan-base political analyst Rashid Abdullo, the recent confrontation highlighted the problem of corrupt officials in both countries.

“As I understand it, this was an attempt to smuggle fertilisers, which Tajikistan doesn’t produce enough of to meet its agricultural needs,” he said. “Some members of the very services - on both sides - that ought to be preventing such illegal activities are involved in them.”

At the same time, Abdullo believes crime flourishes and low-level disputes become more likely to escalate into firefights when the border guards’ employers – the Tajik and Uzbek governments – have such a frosty relationship.

“Unfortunately, until relations between these neighbouring states improve, there will be scope for various types of illegal activity on the border, including smuggling and all the negative things associated with it,” he said.

Economist Hojimahmad Umarov argues that the current restrictive rules governing trade and travel between the two countries must be eased. Only this will curb the illegal traffic, he said, whereas heavy-handed methods like imposing stricter controls simply encourage traders to go underground as smugglers.

Umarov believes a more cooperative relationship, translated into less oppressive rules on the ground, would be good for the economies of both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Komeb Jalilov, an analyst with the Centre for Strategic Studies in Tajikistan, believes such border incidents should not be viewed from a political angle, as they simply involve criminal offences.

At the same time, Jalilov would welcome improved relations between his country and Uzbekistan, and is optimistic that things are slowly moving forward.

The two states have undergone something of a rapprochement as a result of joint membership of regional groupings like the Eurasian Economic Community, Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Jalilov argues that there are other signs of a more cooperative relationship on energy issues, in particular.

“Although Tajik-Uzbek relations have been icy for some time, there is now a thaw at government level,” he concluded.

Cohabitation, not confrontation could be the future for these two nations. As Umarov pointed out, it is precisely because they are so closely intertwined with a great deal of movement between them that it is hard for officials to enforce a rigid divide between them now.

“The situation is very complex, because you have a brother living on one side and his father or sister on the other,” said Umarov. “Everything is entangled. What the leaders need to do is reach agreement and regulate everything in a civilised kind of way, and then we won’t have situations like this.”

Mukammal Odinaeva is a correspondent with the Business and Politics newspaper and Lola Khalikjanova is IWPR editor in Dushanbe.

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