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

Kyrgyz, Tajiks Place High Value on Scrap of Land

Debate over Tajiks giving Kyrgyz a short stretch of road places spotlight on broader questions of land and borders in Fergana Valley.
By Jenish Aydarov

The debate generated by Kyrgyzstan’s acquisition of a small strip of land from Tajikistan highlights the sensitivities that still surround border issues in the ethnic and territorial patchwork of the Fergana Valley.

At a March 3 meeting, the secretary of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, Adakhan Madumarov, and his Tajik counterpart Amirkul Azimov agreed that a 275-metre long strip of Tajik territory should be handed over to fill a missing link in a highway through the southern Kyrgyz province of Batken.

This part of Kyrgyzstan is dotted with enclaves – areas of land that belong to neighbouring states Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Travellers on the main highway through Batken currently have no choice but to go through Chorku, a pocket of Tajik territory inside Kyrgyzstan. That means entering another country, for which they had to go through border controls.

That will change when a new bypass road now under construction is finished. The geography of the 24-kilometre bypass means it will still have to briefly traverse Tajik territory, so work on it had to halt while that issue was resolved. The deal agreed by Madumarov and Azimov has done that, to the obvious satisfaction of both governments.

“The Tajiks have leased us the piece of land for 49 years at a purely symbolic price. That will allow us to resume construction of the [bypass] road,” said Madumarov, indicating that the rent was likely to be set at one US dollar.

“Now we will have a good road and most importantly, an uninterrupted one. This suits us and the Tajiks, too, as they will use the road as well,” said Akjol Madaliev, deputy governor of Batken region.

The deputy secretary of Tajikistan’s Security Council, Akram Amonov, agreed that better road communications would be good for his own country, too. “This is a strategic road linking us with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, and we plan to share in its use,” he said.

WHOSE LAND IS IT – OR WAS IT – ANYWAY?

Although officials view the deal as a win-win situation, local residents are less happy about it, particularly those on the Kyrgyz side, who argue that the land concerned belonged to them in the first place, and that their government should therefore not have acknowledged Tajik sovereignty by agreeing to lease it.

More broadly, some analysts say the deal sets a bad precedent for future negotiations on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, sections of which remain unmarked and sometimes disputed, since the process of demarcating national territories on the ground has not been completed. By assuming that ownership of the strip is undisputed, both governments have pre-empted any future talks on the issue.

“It wasn’t right for Kyrgyzstan to agree to rent land that is disputed, said Karamat Orozova, a member of Batken district council. “This acknowledges in advance that the area belongs to the Tajiks, even though the border line has not yet been established.”

Joldosh Satybaldiev, who is Batken region’s official representative in northern Tajikistan, said, “It’s clear the authorities haven’t done their job properly. The area on which we’ve taken out a lease is Kyrgyz land, and the people who used to work on it are still alive.”

Maksat Taabaldiev, from the Kyrgyz village of Aktatyr next door to Chorku, believes land ownership is a matter of principle that overrides short-term issues like routing the bypass.

“The road construction could have been halted. We would have managed somehow, without giving away the land,” he said.

In Chorku itself, a woman who withheld her name indicated that the suspicion was mutual.

“The local Tajiks do not approve leasing the plot to the Kyrgyz. They think that once they’ve built their road, the Kyrgyz won’t negotiate on other issues,” she said.

A political analyst in Tajikistan, Kosim Bekmuhamedov, voiced another concern, saying, “If the Kyrgyz have leased it for 49 years, they will obviously build houses there. What will happen to them 49 years down the line?”

A Tajik government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted the land belonged to his country, but agreed with the official Kyrgyz position that the matter had been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

“The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development allocated funding to Kyrgyzstan to build the road. But the Kyrgyz included the 275 metre stretch in the project without first consulting the Tajiks. This area belongs to Tajikistan,” he said.

He added, “We have not sacrificed anything in deciding to lease it to the Kyrgyz, since we are historically neighbours, we are related peoples and moreover, once it is finished, the road can be used by both Tajiks and Kyrgyz.”

NEW BORDERS, NEW UNCERTAINTIES

The Batken region is part of the Fergana Valley, and borders on both the other states that share this geographical region – Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Batken juts out from southwestern Kyrgyzstan and is sandwiched between Uzbekistan to the north and Tajikistan to the south.

There are several enclaves in Batken – Chorku and the nearby Vorukh, also belonging to Tajikistan; and the Uzbek territories of Shahimardan and Sokh. Chorku consists of 130 square km with a population of 20,000, 95 per cent of them ethnic Tajiks.

These enclaves were created in the early years of Soviet rule in Central Asia, as the Communist authorities mapped out the contours of five new republics. Some analysts say the region was carved up as part of a divide-and-rule, but it could also be argued that if the policy was to create nation states in form if not in substance, ethnic communities found in pockets outside their titular republics were incorporated into them administratively.

In any case, as long as everyone was living in the same country, the Soviet Union, internal borders meant little and did not impede life at village level in places like Batken. But that began changing in the 1990s, as the newly independent states began patrolling their frontiers and negotiating their sovereignty over patches of land whose use had previously been determined more by custom and practice than any official map.

For some years after independence, controls remained lax enough for people to keep on ignoring what they regarded as merely administrative divisions. They continued to use farmlands, animal pastures, and water resources as they had always done, no matter which side of the border it lay.

Armed raids conducted by the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, in 1999 and 2000 sharply intensified the trend towards clearly delineated and heavily guarded state boundaries. The IMU guerrillas operated out of Tajikistan, but launched many of their incursions from Batken, prompting all three governments to focus on security in this part of the Fergana valley.

One of the changes that followed was the creation of Tajik and Kyrgyz border checkpoints around the Chorku and Vorukh enclaves from 2002 onwards. That meant someone driving through Batken, with no alternative to going via Chorku, had to formally enter and then exit Tajikistan before continuing their journey through Kyrgyz territory.

Residents of Leilek district, in the far west of Batken, were effectively cut off from the rest of country unless they were prepared to cross Chorku and other enclaves.

Add to this some 70 pieces of land where sovereignty is uncertain, and it becomes clear why Batken is one of the few remaining parts of Central Asia where the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments have yet to demarcate their territories.

Despite these unresolved issues and occasional tensions at a local level, relations between Bishkek and Dushanbe have generally been good over the years.

Any disputes tend to focus on local questions of land and water use. In March last year, around 150 Tajiks crossed into Kyrgyz territory and attempted to destroy a dam that had reduced the amount of irrigation water they were getting.

Some friction is also caused by the perception among Kyrgyz that ahead of demarcation, some border villages could be subjected to a creeping form of annexation, as Tajiks buy or rent homes left by people who have gone away to find work in the richer north of Kyrgyzstan, or in Russia and Kazakstan.

WILL ROAD REDUCE TENSIONS?

Kyrgyz officials insist they took all the legal complexities into account when negotiating for the land.

Alisher Ergeshov, who heads the government’s land registry, said that until demarcation formally took place, Tajik sovereignty over the land being leased by Kyrgyzstan would not be set in stone legally.

At the same time, Salamat Alamanov, who heads the government department for provincial affairs, and took part in the negotiations over the transfer, said the officials who studied the documents relating to this patch of land were satisfied that it was not under dispute.

Some locals – both Kyrgyz and Tajiks – warn that the new bypass will not help relations between the communities.

“For a start, the authorities won’t be able to prevent all conflicts even if they build this stretch of road. It will pass very close to the Tajik village [of Chorku] and a Kyrgyz canal. That means that past incidents when boys threw stones at our buses and cars from the Tajik side will be repeated,” Bahrinisa Tajibaeva, from the Kyrgyz village of Aktatyr.

“I also have doubts about the quality of the road. Several other bypasses have been built in our region, but people always went for the old route through the enclaves because of the quality.”

Gulnara Derbisheva, a member of parliament from the pro-presidential Ak Jol party and a long-term resident of Batken, says there are wider issues relating to access to land and water around the road that need to be resolved.

“It could be that the decision by the two countries’ security councils was the optimal solution, but another round of talks will be needed to provide more detailed clarification on matters relating to drinking water, pastures and so on, in order to prevent potential sources of tension,” she said.

In recent years, growing pressures on land availability, complicated by the sovereignty issue, have increased competition among communities along borders and around enclaves for farmland, pasture for livestock, access to water resources, and the right to fell trees for firewood.

In Chorku itself, Tajik interviewees were concerned about what they might get out of the road agreement. Many believe there is a tacit deal in place where they will get access to Kyrgyz land.

“There’s talk in the village that in return for what we’ve given up, we can use some Kyrgyz pasture land, “said Solimjon Mahmutjonov.

Others warned that the road could be a focus for protests if relations deteriorated.

“The land belongs to us Tajiks, but the top people have decided to lease it out,” said resident Sobir Mustafaev. “But if Kyrgyzstan won’t assist us on matters like water, roads and pastures, then there will come a time when people gather together and block the [bypass] road.”

Orozbek Moldaliev, director of the Politics, Religion and Security Centre in Bishkek, said that this kind of risk was inherent in the deal.

“A lease was not the best of decisions,” he said. “During periods when there is a confrontation, the Tajiks can block roads, saying the land belong to them.”

Alamanov, of the Kyrgyz government’s provincial affairs department, believes some of the concerns raised by both Kyrgyz and Tajik residents are being hyped up by outside interests.

“I am sure someone is stirring up the locals,” he said. “As someone who has studied this for decades, I am 100 per cent certain that building this road is in the interests of the local population.”

Jenish Aydarov and Aslibegim Manzarshoeva are IWPR-trained contributors in Batken and Dushanbe, respectively. Additional interviews conducted by Mirgul Akimova, a journalist in Bishkek working under a pseudonym.