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Kyrgyz Call for Return of Uzbek Territory

Territorial dispute threatening to aggravate Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations.
By Leila Saralaeva

A demand by Kyrgyz politicians for the return of a region which became Uzbek territory during Soviet times is doing nothing to ease the country's difficult relations with Uzbekistan.


Deputies in the Kyrgyz parliament on September 6 demanded redoubled government efforts to secure Kyrgyz ownership of the Uzbek-dominated Shakhimardan region, which was handed over to the Uzbeks by Kyrgyz party officials in the Thirties without the consent of the central Soviet administration.


At the time, since the entire region formed one part of the Soviet Union, these borders were relatively unimportant and had little influence on the everyday life of people living around them.


But after the Soviet Union collapsed and the former administrative regions became fully-fledged states, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been involved in ongoing talks to try and delineate their boundaries.


The move by Kyrgyz politicians to push harder for ownership of the Shakhimardan region has provoked a strong reaction amongst Uzbeks, who maintain that the territory belongs to them.


Tucked into a gorge in the Alai mountains 55 kilometres south of the Uzbek city of Fergana, the Shakhimardan enjoys mountain lakes, cool air and picturesque scenery. It was well-known during Soviet times as a holiday destination for Uzbek and Kyrgyz party bosses, and is now a popular retreat for citizens of both countries.


Accounts of how the region became an Uzbek enclave vary.


Head of the Kyrgyz parliamentary committee for state security Major General Ismail Isakov, who initiated the September 6 demand, claims Shakhimardan was given to the Uzbeks as a place for senior Uzbek officials to take their holidays.


Rumours also circulate that the territory was lost by a Kyrgyz official in a card game with an Uzbek colleague.


But Kyrgyz politicians agree that the process by which the territory ended up in Uzbek hands was illegitimate and should now be revoked.


"This process had no legal basis," Isakov told IWPR, "so two years ago parliamentary deputies voted to hold talks with the leadership of Uzbekistan on returning Shakhimardan."


"Even though the Uzbek side considers the territory to be its own, there is a possibility of it being returned," he said. "It needs to be decided by a bilateral intergovernmental commission on delimitation and demarcation of state borders."


Salamat Alamanov, the head of the department of regional problems in the Kyrgyz prime minister's office, concurs. "According to the materials we have, there was no transfer of Shakhimardan to Uzbekistan by Kyrgyzstan, either under lease or any other way."


Kyrgyz prime minister Nikolai Tanaev, who was present at the meeting where the demand for disputed territory was made, supports the politicians' calls. "Shakhimardan is Kyrgyz territory," he said. "We will uphold our rights, and this issue will be raised along with others at the next round of talks on delimitation and demarcation of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border."


Alamanov says the Kyrgyz government has been talking to Tashkent since 2001 about the status of a number of Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyz territory - including Sokh, Chonkara and Tashdobo - and about the Kyrgyz pocket of Barak.


"This many enclaves within another country is a very rare phenomenon on the territories of neighbouring countries. So we are approaching this issue very carefully at talks, as there can easily be an uproar over such delicate issues," he said.


Takhir Umarov, an independent journalist from Tashkent, told IWPR that politicians risk creating regional tensions over the issue. "We are a single people with a related culture and language and we need to unite, not to grate on each other's nerves as is happening with Shakhimardan," he said.


"I don't think that there will be bloodshed over this problem but relations between our brotherly countries will be spoilt - not just at government level but on the level of ordinary citizens, as 99 per cent of Uzbek citizens are against this idea [the transfer of Shakhimardan back to Kyrgyszstan]."


On September 10, the Uzbek media published a statement by the Ozod Dekhkonlar political party and the Civil Movement of Uzbekistan, which made an appeal to events further back in history to justify Uzbek claims on the territory.


"For many decades Kyrgyzstan as such did not exist, and the territory that it was given as part of the USSR used to belong to the Kokand khanate," it said, referring to an Uzbek-dominated state established in the Fergana valley region in the 18th century. "So it is the Uzbek side that has more right to appeal to historical justice, not the other way around."


"We acknowledge the fact that Soviet power made national and territorial divisions very arbitrarily. However, this does not mean that today the time has come to re-examine the existing state borders."


Uzbek journalist Akbarali Aripov from Shakhimardan told IWPR that the Kyrgyz bid to win back the territory is likely to fail, "Our country will never hand over territories, because it has a huge population - over 25 million. There is not enough land, not to mention enough beautiful natural resorts."


Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek. Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is IWPR programme coordinator in Kyrgyzstan.


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