Kyrgyz-Kazak in Spat Over Holiday Resort

Bishkek seizes Kazak-owned hotels in a row reflecting low-level diplomatic tensions.

Kyrgyz-Kazak in Spat Over Holiday Resort

Bishkek seizes Kazak-owned hotels in a row reflecting low-level diplomatic tensions.

Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan have become strained over a property row on Lake Issyk-Kul, the region's main tourist destination.

The dispute arose out of a decision by Kyrgyzstan's government to assume ownership of five sanatoriums and small hotels belonging to Kazakstan but located along the lakeside - in Kyrgyz territory.

The ownership issue highlights the difficulty of deciding who owns what in the post-Soviet republics, more than a decade after the end of the USSR.

But the row appears to driven by friction between the two countries, which normally enjoy good relations and have no substantial areas of dispute. Kyrgyzstan has been angered by its bigger neighbour's recent decision to introduce immigration controls and deport Kyrgyz migrant workers.

"This move by our government can be seen as a response to Kazakstan's actions," former Kyrgyz foreign minister Muratbek Imanaliev told IWPR. "Kyrgyzstan has decided to take some measures after the restrictive steps taken by Kazakstan."

A Kyrgyz government official, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that the row was not really about the hotels, "Kazakstan forces us to take certain steps to stand up for our interests.

"I don't think these five buildings are a reason for a quarrel, but it is a good occasion to start talks."

Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Bektur Asanov is sure that his government's move will make the Kazaks stop and think. "Over the last two years, our neighbours have been trying to show that they are superior to us, but because of this situation with the hotels, they will acknowledge Kyrgyzstan's interests and sit down to talk with us," he said.

Kazakstan has already responded - in August, Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov set up a government working group to look into property rights on Lake Issyk-Kul.

The property dispute goes back to Soviet times, when it was all the same country, and the Uzbek and Kazak republics built their own health resorts and hotels along the lake's shores. But despite a 1992 agreement in which the post-Soviet states tried to sort out how to divide up their real estate, Kyrgyzstan says there is a clause excluding hotels and other tourist facilities.

Kyrgyz parliamentarians think that the Kazaks should now pay for the sanatoriums, either by buying them outright or taking a long lease.

But Kazakstan, which has paid for the upkeep of the buildings since independence, says it will continue to claim ownership.

Serik Abdrakhmanov, a member of the Kazak parliament, thinks Kyrgyzstan grabbed the buildings only to cover a shortfall in its budget. But he suggests that the Kyrgyz are not in a position to behave like that, "Their policies have no future; I don't think that you can conduct a war against your neighbour in this way.

"We should live in friendship, and this is especially needed by Kyrgyzstan. Kazakstan has an outlet to Europe, to Russia, and we can offer Kyrgyzstan profitable economic cooperation."

Three of the five properties belong to Kazak government ministries, while the other two are now privately owned.

"All our documents are in order," said the director of the Almaty sanatorium, Bakhytjan Abdrakhmanov. "Our sanatorium is private property. Just let them try to take away private property, it's not a toy."

And there are fears that the dispute could affect tourism. "If our hotels are given to Kyrgyzstan, the number of Kazak tourists who go there will drop drastically," said Fatima Uzbekova, who manages Astana-Tour, a Kazak travel agency. "If that's the way they treat intergovernmental agreements there, then how will they treat ordinary citizens?"

Kyrgyz political scientist Nura Omarova thinks Kazakstan should be allowed to keep the disputed buildings, for the sake of improved diplomatic relations.

"Put it this way - it's not worth ruining relations with your neighbour over five tomato plants, when you're going to have to live alongside them for the rest of your life," she said.

She believes that the row may harm foreign investment in Kyrgyzstan.

"Kazak citizens have boosted our country's economy in a number of areas," said Omarova. "Banks have opened and enterprises have been set up. If we put them off, they will abandon Kyrgyz markets and concentrate on Russia instead."

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek. Aitken Kadyrbekov is a journalist for the Kazakstan newspaper Nachnem s Ponedelnika.

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