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

Military Cooperation Pays Economic Dividends

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan agree on economic cooperation following joint military operations against Islamic rebels
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Economic ties between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are improving following their joint response to armed incursions by Islamic guerrilla groups.

The attempt to work more closely together however could be jeopardised by increasing tensions between the two countries over Tashkent's policy of planting of land-mines along its border. (see preceding RCA story)

The growing military cooperation followed raids by members of the so-called Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, into the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan, aimed at establishing a corridor into Uzbek territory.

Many believe it was the Kyrgyz army's stand against IMU incursions that helped to bring about the December 6 agreement between Tashkent and Bishkek on water resources and energy supplies.

Under the agreement, Uzbekistan will supply gas to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for water and electricity.

In previous years, Kyrgyzstan's dependence on gas deliveries from its neighbour was often used by Tashkent as a means of punishing Bishkek.

The two countries have never got on particularly well. They've long quarrelled over water resources and energy supplies and had numerous border disputes, inherited from the Soviet era, the most recent of which was provoked by the land-mine controversy.

Uzbekistan has been laying ordnance along its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as a deterrence against attacks by IMU fighters. The policy has resulted in a number of Kyrgyz and Tajik civilian casualties, incurring the wrath of Bishkek and Dushanbe.

Following a period of mutual criticism and hostility over their evaluation of the threat posed by the IMU, Kyrgyzstan has come to endorse the position of its larger and militarily stronger neighbour, Uzbekistan, that the Islamic rebels represent a serious threat.

The seeds of cooperation were sown in April 2000 in Tashkent, when Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan signed a treaty on the maintenance of security and stability in the region.

But problems quickly emerged. When the first groups of Islamic fighters attacked the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan in August 1999, the Kyrgyz army was unprepared. Its soldiers were poorly trained and some of its military hardware is reported to have been sold off.

After rebel fighters were reportedly paid a ransom of $6 million for the return of Japanese hostages, Uzbek President Islam Karimov warned Kyrgyzstan that the rebels would use the money to prepare new attacks.

The IMU had declared that they would use a corridor through southern Kyrgyzstan to confront the Uzbek authorities. Tashkent felt its security was dependent on Bishkek's readiness to counter the insurgents. Karimov urged Kyrgyzstan to act against the militants.

Karimov remarked that Kyrgyzstan had underestimated the IMU threat. He said Kyrgyz leader Askar Akaev did not understand that their aim was to attack the other republics of Central Asia, or that the Islamic state they were planning to establish would incorporate a section of Kyrgyzstan.

The Batken affair and the breakout of IMU fighters into the town of Yangiabad in Uzbekistan in November 1999 prompted a fundamental re-evaluation of events by the republics of Central Asia.

The April treaty allowed for both a unified front against external attacks and a widening of measures to strengthen joint security.

The agreements prepared the ground in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for improvements in both army training and the technical base of military detachments.

Uzbekistan, according to some sources, gave Kyrgyzstan assistance in the form of arms and military hardware, allowing it to deal successfully with the groups of fighters which again appeared in the Batken region this year.

The Kyrgyz armed forces were much quicker to act against the insurgents on this occasion , eliciting praise from Karimov.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were critical of Tajikistan's role in the conflict, accusing it of yet again having let the fighters through its territory.

In Kyrgyzstan, critics of the authorities argue that the IMU is a product of Tashkent's repressive policies against religious groups and only seeks to overthrow the current Uzbek leadership.

But this is not the official view. The representative of the Kyrgyz embassy in Uzbekistan believes the IMU fighters are international terrorists bent on destabilising the republics of Central Asia.

The strengthening of military and technical collaboration has led to a boom in trade between the two countries, the agreement on energy and water resources being perhaps the most important to date.

Political analyst Mukimjon Kirgizbaev said Tashkent and Bishkek are fated to work more closely, "Uzbekistan is Kyrgyzstan's largest neighbour - both occupy the same geo-political territory and have the same concerns."

But some are concerned that unless the dispute over land-mines is settled soon, it could lead to something more serious and threaten to set back efforts to improve relations between the quarrelsome neighbours.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR Project Editor in Tashkent

More IWPR's Global Voices

Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
With the checkpoint closed, some residents of Abkhazia are risking their lives to access services.
Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
Trapped in Eastern Ukraine