Kyrgyz MPs Rail Against Border Deal

Kyrgyz deputies challenge the government over a secret memorandum proposing an exchange of territory with Uzbekistan

Kyrgyz MPs Rail Against Border Deal

Kyrgyz deputies challenge the government over a secret memorandum proposing an exchange of territory with Uzbekistan

The Bishkek parliament last week ruled as null and void a secret memorandum agreed by the Kyrgyz and Uzbek heads of state proposing an exchange of territory in the Batken region of southern Kyrgyzstan.

The MPs, citing the Kyrgyz constitution, said any border or territorial changes could only be sanctioned by parliament, not the prime minister or president.

The memorandum, dated February 26, proposed the unification of the Sokh Uzbek enclave with Uzbekistan, in exchange for areas of Uzbek territory.

The MPs fury over the proposal has increased tension between the two countries, coming just days after a Kyrgyz shepherd, Ulugbek Tolebaev, was killed when he trod on a landmine planted by Uzbek forces along the border.

Three people were seriously injured in similar incidents last year. Uzbekistan is unapologetic, insisting that it is necessary to plant mines to deter bandits and preserve the security of the state.

Guerrillas from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have used the Batken as a forward base for attacks on Uzbek territory for two years in succession. Further incursions are expected this summer.

Pushed onto the defensive, Kyrgyz officials have been quick to point out the memorandum was not final or binding.

The Uzbek authorities are expected to respond to this setback by once again cutting off essential natural gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan.

The MPs, mostly from southern Kyrgyzstan, gave Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev a serious grilling when he appeared in parliament to explain the controversial memorandum. "Who forced you to sign this?" one MP demanded. Others accused the premier of "secretly trading Kyrgyz land" and demanded his resignation.

Bakiev admitted he had exceeded his authority in signing the memo and apologised to parliament and proceeded to explain how the agreement had come about.

He said in late February the Uzbek prime minister, Utkir Sultanov, had visited Bishkek to discuss water and energy problems between the two countries.

For a month before the meeting, Uzbek supplies of natural gas to northern Kyrgyzstan had been significantly reduced - a tactic often employed by Tashkent to pressure Bishkek into making concessions.

In order to make up the power shortfall in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz authorities had been forced to increase the flow of water from the vital Toktogul reservoir. This, in turn, had threatened Uzbekistan's multi-million dollar cotton harvest, which relies on Kyrgyz reservoirs for irrigation.

Hence Sultanov's hurried visit to Bishkek. Just before leaving, Sultanov had caught his Kyrgyz counterpart unawares by proffering talks on the territory exchange memo.

"As a request of honoured guests I did not feel able to refuse," Bakiev said. "Besides I reckoned government experts had perhaps agreed the matter beforehand." The prime minister insisted the Uzbek delegation had not pressured him or the president.

Shortly after Sultanov's delegation left for Tashkent, Uzbek gas supplies were back to full volume. Reports followed that relations in the border areas were much improved. Kyrgyz travelling through the Sokh enclave were finding life much easier.

Uzbekistan had previously established a network of checkpoints and customs posts in the area and Kyrgyz travellers had been subjected to thorough searches at every turn, often accompanied by abuse and insults.

Just when locals thought their governments had finally found a common language to resolve the energy and water problems, news of the secret memorandum struck like a bolt from the blue.

During the subsequent parliamentary hearing, it was revealed that both sides had labelled the memo "classified" and had agreed not to divulge its contents until the issue was finally resolved.

Problems over the proposed deal emerged in early April, when Bakiev visited the Batken region to inspect the areas Uzbekistan was offering in exchange for the proposed Sokh corridor.

"Once I was sure that it was impossible to establish transportation links to this area or to utilise the location for agricultural purposes I refused to fulfil the agreement reached in the memorandum and informed the Uzbek side of my position through the ministry of foreign affairs," Bakiev told parliament.

The text of the memo was reportedly circulated by Uzbek sources in Kyrgyz border areas. A copy was published by the Batken regional newspaper Batken Tany and then reprinted in the Kygyz national press.

Batken regional governor Mamat Aiboliev described the proposal as a fatal blow to the region. "Firstly, the day after such a step, the Batken region itself will effectively become an enclave," Aiboliev said. "Secondly, the Uzbek side is demanding the road along the river Sokh as well. This would leave us without water, which is so valuable in our region."

Omurbek Tekebaev, deputy speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament and the only opposition member in the upper house, pointed the finger of blame at Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev.

Tekebaev claimed that when Uzbek gas supplies to northern Kyrgyzstan were cut, the Bishkek authorities were forced to beg Tashkent for help. "One can assume it was (Uzbek) President Karimov who forced the Kyrgyz leaders to agree to his demands over the Sokh enclave," he said.

The leader of the Communist Party, Absamat Masaliev, claimed another secret territorial agreement has been reached with China. "Reportedly, without discussion with anybody, the president has signed a document about the transfer of 90,000 hectares to China, " he said." We have asked for this document - but they won't give it to us."

Salamat Alamanov, the Kyrgyz official charged with addressing regional problems, argues governments must act with extreme caution and delicacy in dealing with territorial disputes. He said the memo was a notification of intentions and nothing more.

Batken MP Tashbolot Baltabaev said tensions in his area were so high, the whole issue of the Sokh enclave should be taken off the agenda for years to come to prevent an explosion of discontent. Baltabaev argued that after some years the situation in the region would change, a new generation would enter politics, and new solutions could be found.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are left with a border headache. Tashkent insists on the 1924-1927 borders, which would see a large chunk of the Batken ceded to Uzbekistan - something Bishkek refuses to countenance. Kyrgyz experts favour the 1955 maps drawn up by the Soviet authorities.

Some analysts predict the secret memo scandal will intensify confrontation between Akaev and his parliamentary opponents. The imprisonment of former vice president Felix Kulov, Akaev's main political rival, and the closure of the Asaba newspaper - driven into bankruptcy by incessant law suits - means opposition deputies pose the only challenge to the president.

Even so, Akaev has strong support in parliament too. One can assume the president is in confident mood.

Sultan Jumagulov is an IWPR contributor

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