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

Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border Tensions

There are fears that border guard harassment of travellers and traders crossing the Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier could provoke inter-ethnic violence.
By Ulugbek Babakulov

When Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan declared independence, an international border suddenly sprang up between the two former Soviet republics. With an international border, came border posts. And with border posts came guards, whose conduct has bred such resentment among Kyrgyz and Uzbek travellers that some analysts are warning that frontier disputes could sow the seeds of inter-ethnic violence.


On the Uzbek side of the border, the guards are mainly conscripts. With no professional training, they tend to regard their job as a compulsory - but temporary - inconvenience. As a result, travellers crossing the frontier are often subject to rough and ready treatment from guards who feel free to order them about.


"At times it seems the Uzbek border guards are completely unable to deal with people in a civil way," said Kadyrjan, a Kyrgyz man who often travels to the Uzbek town of Andijan to buy raw materials for his shoe repair shop. Kadyrjan uses a roundabout route twice as long as the regular one to avoid the border guards.


Aigul, a female student at Osh State University, also favours this longer route. She described a recent encounter at the frontier. "At the Khanabad post I showed my passport and tried to go through. But the soldier kept me back, saying that I needed a visa and that my passport was no longer valid," she said. Aigul was held for over two hours at the post. "In that time I could have easily got to Osh using the other route and I wouldn't have been humiliated," she said.


It's not only Kyrgyz people who suffer border problems. Although Uzbek citizens are less forthcoming about it, they face similar difficulties with Kyrgyz customs officials.


A nephew of Kyrgyz human rights defender Azimjan Askarov was detained by Kyrgyz border guards who, noticing he was an inhabitant of Uzbekistan, demanded 10,000 Uzbek sum, which is roughly 7.3 US dollars.


The boy didn't want to pay up so he headed back towards the Uzbek border. The Kyrgyz guards called him back and let him go on his way. It turned out that a local taxi driver had recognised that he was related to Askarov and warned the guards they might run into trouble later.


Traders from Uzbekistan selling their goods at the town market in Jalal-Abad say that when they cross the Kyrgyz border, guards use all sorts of excuses to make trouble. "You have to either give them money or some of your goods," said a trader named Bakhram.


Recently, Bakhram bought a hundred brooms. At the border he was held by Kyrgyz customs officials who demanded that he fill in a lengthy customs declaration. The trader was eventually excused the form-filling in exchange for leaving behind two brooms to be used for cleaning up the customs post.


Local inhabitants say you can almost always reach agreement with border guards. "Two or three times a week I bring petrol and diesel from Uzbekistan in my car. At the border posts, I know all the guards and customs people. I give them a certain sum of money and they tell me when I can easily pass through. They always let me through," said one man who preferred not to give his name.


But if someone is late in making their pay-off, the guards can become violent and are not slow to use their weapons. In November, inhabitants of Darya village in the Suzak region inside Uzbekistan took their horses to water and ran into Uzbek soldiers on the way. The guards said the herders were too close to the frontier to water horses. After a heated argument the former opened fire, although no one was injured.


Askarov points out that the border soldiers have such poor military training that when issued with weapons, they constitute a danger to civilians. "Take the Khanabad or Karasu posts - they're very busy and there are always a lot of people travelling through past soldiers with machine guns. The lack of control over them is very worrying."


In July last year, a conflict broke out between Uzbek border guards and the inhabitants of the Kyrgyz village of Airy-Tam in the Jalal-Abad region.


When the soldiers began to harass a passing Kyrgyz girl, villagers came to her aid and were threatened by the guards. More villagers arrived, the soldiers opened fire and a girl was shot in the shoulder.


The incident left the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border zone very tense. Indira Raimberdieva of the Group for the Building of Peace acknowledges that the border posts are essential for national security, but warns that the way they are run not only undermines their effectiveness, but also risks making them a future flashpoint.


"If governments take no steps to resolve the problem soon, the situation could be entirely out of control within a couple of years, increasing the chances that inter-ethnic and other violence will flare up over the region."


Ulugbek Babakulov is a human rights activist in Jalal-Abad.