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The New 'Iron Curtain'

On the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, travellers run the gauntlet of unmarked minefields and constant police harassment
By IWPR Central Asia

Uzbekistan's "Iron curtain" regime on the Kyrgyz border is stretching the patience of local residents to breaking point.


One exasperated Batken rice-trader, Maksat Djashparov, was recently given the chance to air his grievances before the Kyrgyz parliament in Bishkek.


"As soon as we get down from the bus," he explained, "the Uzbek police start searching us and rummaging around in our baggage. They say they're looking for drugs.


"Even if we've just arrived, they accuse us of avoiding visa registration and make us pay fines. I know several Kyrgyz businessmen who have been relieved of their goods as well as large sums of money. Of course, they didn't try to complain because everyone knows that if you end up in an Uzbek prison, you'll probably never get out," Djashparov added.


Since the Uzbek authorities introduced a visa regime in August last year, complaints of police harassment and obstructive red tape have become commonplace.


The tougher measures were prompted by the Tashkent bombings of February 1999 when Uzbek President Islam Karimov claimed that enemies of the state were taking refuge in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.


In a bid to placate Tashkent, the Kyrgyz leadership launched a police crackdown on minority religious groups and even handed over a number of people suspected of extremist activities to the Uzbek authorities.


But, nonetheless, Uzbekistan continued to strengthen its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In September last year, seven new checkpoints were opened on the Batken sector alone whilst a minefield was laid around Sokh - an Uzbek enclave in Kyrgyzstan.


Now all buses crossing Uzbek territory are accompanied by a police escort and passengers are obliged to pay a $10 tax. Bus owners and drivers pay the Uzbek authorities a further $60 a month for transit rights.


"We don't object to the police escort, we're even ready to pay," said one Kyrgyz driver. "What's really frustrating is that we're not allowed to leave Uzbekistan until a total of 10 buses have reached the border. Sometimes we have to wait for days. And there are always sick and elderly people amongst the passengers."


The Uzbek authorities accuse the Kyrgyz of riding roughshod over visa regulations by making no attempt to register with the authorities, engaging in commercial activities or failing to return before the visa expiry date. Many Kyrgyz, they claim, are still unaware that there is a visa regime in place.


In retaliation, the Kyrgyz authorities in the Batken district have begun to strengthen their own border posts, especially those leading into the Uzbek enclave of Sokh. They have warned that border guards will take any "suitable measures" to respond to "unjustified actions on the part of their neighbours".


The land-mine issue has also done much to sour relationships between the two countries. Mines laid along the border with the Fergana oblast and the Sokh enclave have killed or injured at least 12 Kyrgyz nationals over the past few months.


Bishkek claims that the Uzbek authorities have yet to provide adequate information on the location of the minefields while Tashkent argues that Kyrgyz officials have failed to warn local residents of their existence.


Tashbolot Baltabaev, Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy for the Batken region, said the growing tension on the border could escalate unless the situation was addressed on a local and intergovernmental level.


There are signs, however, that appeals made by the Kyrgyz authorities and the Uzbek inhabitants of Sokh have not fallen on deaf ears.


At the end of last year, the head of the Fergana oblast administration, Alisher Atabaev, met with Batken governor Mamat Aibalaev to discuss the volatile situation in the region. Aibalaev urged the Uzbeks to remove the new border checkpoints and clear the minefields. He also complained about the heavy-handed tactics employed by Uzbek police.


Atabaev told his counterpart that the land-mine question could only be decided on a governmental level while the tougher border regulations were part of a general strengthening of state security in Uzbekistan.


However, the Uzbeks have agreed to certain concessions. The deputy governor of the Batken district, Abdimadjit Abdirakhmanov, reported that some checkpoints had already been removed from the frontier. And a bilateral commission has also been formed for reviewing complaints lodged against the Uzbek police.


Furthermore, the Uzbek authorities have said they are ready to compensate Kyrgyz victims of land-mine explosions if it can be proved that an Uzbek mine was responsible for the accident.


Some analysts have commented that these concessions have been prompted by sound economic and political considerations. Not only are there are several Uzbek enclaves in the neighbouring state but Uzbekistan also relies heavily on gas extraction plants located across the Kyrgyz border.


And Bishkek holds one other trump card - the water reservoirs in the Batken mountains are used to irrigate Uzbek fields during the summer months.


Sultan Jumagulov is a regular IWPR contributor