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Tajiks Claim Travel to Kyrgyzstan Hindered

Effects of border confrontation still reverberating in now troubled relationship between neighbouring states.
By Timur Toktonaliev, Galim Faskhutdinov

Tajik nationals travelling to Kyrgyzstan by air are reporting severe delays at passport control, which they attribute to diplomatic tensions over a recent border clash.

Although Bishkek denies any official policy of obstructing travel for Tajik citizens, analysts note the heightened rhetoric about retaliatory measures as negotiations fail to resolve matters.

The row focuses on Vorukh, an enclave of Tajik territory within Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken region, and home to some 40,000 people.

Kyrgyz residents on either side used to have to drive through Vorukh to get to different parts of Batken. Now the Kyrgyz authorities are building a road intended to bypass the enclave completely.

Trouble flared on January 11 when Tajik frontier guards confronted workers and demanded they halt construction on a stretch of road they claimed lay within the enclave. Shots were fired on both sides and two Tajik and three Kyrgyz guards were injured. (See Kyrgyz-Tajik Row After Border Clash for details.)

The incident rapidly developed into a full-scale diplomatic row between two governments that usually enjoy cordial relations.

The main Kyrgyz-Tajik highway has been temporarily closed, and while Tajiks currently in Kyrgyzstan can leave the country, entering overland is not possible.

Dushanbe political analyst Parviz Mullojanov was among those who reported severe delays at arrivals in Bishkek’s Manas airport. He said he was perplexed at being held up for more than six hours on January 26 when he flew in to attend an international conference.

Mullojanov was among nine people stopped at passport control, and told to take a seat and wait.

“When we asked the reason, they told us, ‘we don’t give any explanations, we just won’t let you in and that’s that,’” Mullojanov said, adding that passport control officers later conceded that they had orders to prevent Tajik passengers from entering the country unless they were students or had been invited to specific events.

“We were told off the record that there is no written order but that there are verbal instructions,” Mullojanov said.

It was only when Mullojanov and his fellow-passengers began phoning friends and colleagues in Bishkek that they were finally allowed to go through passport control.

Mullojanov added that he had heard about problems with entry to Kyrgyzstan prior to his trip, but when organisers of the Bishkek conference called up the airport, they were reassured that there were no restrictions for Tajik visitors.

For more than a week, Zarina Homuradova, a representative of the Tajik embassy in Kyrgyzstan, has been at the airport offering consular assistance to nationals arriving in Bishkek.

Homuradova told IWPR that the embassy had received reassurances from the Kyrgyz foreign ministry that there were no particular issues for Tajik citizens entering the country. But she said that in practice, passengers on several flights had experienced delays at the airport.

“The problems started after January 11,” she added.

Gulmira Borubaeva, spokesperson for the Kyrgyz frontier service, denied that Tajik nationals were being targeted.

“There is no order from above,” Borubaeva said, adding that Tajik citizens were going through passport controls just like travellers from any other country.

The border dispute continues to sour political relations.

At a committee meeting in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament on January 27, Irina Karamushkina, a politician from the governing Social Democratic Party, floated the idea of closing the country’s airspace to Tajik aircraft.

Karamushkina told IWPR afterwards that she had merely passed on a proposal she had heard from locals when she visited the conflict area.

“They put forward this idea – in a couple of months, the period when Tajik citizens travel abroad for seasonal work will begin… Let’s keep the border shut and also close Kyrgyz airspace,” she said.

Hundreds of thousands of Tajiks leave to seek work aboard each year, mostly in Russia, and often travel via Kyrgyzstan.

Karamushkina said that she understood the consequences of taking such extreme action, but that she supported locals who wanted Bishkek to take action.

In Batken, construction of the bypass road was now on hold, but the situation was still tense, she said.

“Our people can see that Tajikistan has stationed combat vehicles close to the border,” she said.

The Tajik authorities have denied that military units had been sent to the area. Defence ministry spokesman Faridun Mahmadaliev told journalists on January 14 that reports of forces being deployed close to the border with Kyrgyzstan were un true.

Rovshan Abdulloev, head of the Eurasia Foundation in Tajikistan, said political parties in Kyrgyzstan were trying to draw attention to themselves by issuing sometimes provocative declarations.

“I believe that Tajikistan’s leadership is doing the right thing by not reacting to the vocal statements coming from individual officials and politicians in Kyrgyzstan,” Abdullaev said.

He warned of dire consequences if talks became deadlocked, especially the current winter period when the border closure could hit local communities on both sides.

“The biggest issue is not to leave people without basic foodstuffs and fuel for heating,” he said.

A source in Tajikistan’s security service told IWPR that more than 300 freight trucks were currently held up at the border, and more than 100 Kyrgyz students were unable to cross into their country.

Tajik political analyst Marat Mamadshoev noted that ordinary people were feeling the consequences of a political failure to settle the border dispute.

“At the same time, Bishkek is demonstrating that it has leverage over Dushanbe; that it has the upper hand. But that isn’t not going to help solve the problem,” Mamadshoev said.

He expressed that talk of retaliation was an emotional response by individuals rather than the Kyrgyz government’s official stance.

Mamadshoev attributed the lack of progress in the talks, which are being led by deputy prime ministers from both sides, to the fact that the negotiating teams were dominated by border security and defence officials. These services were unused to diplomacy, he added.

“The problem with our [security] ministries is that the way they operate is by dictating and relying on force,” he said.

Coupled with the complexity of the issues along this stretch of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, and the fact that local communities on either side mistrust their own governments, the lack of progress is unsurprising, Mamadshoev said.

“It may be that a decision will be made on insignificant issues and some temporary solutions reached. But it is unlikely that the problem will be solved in its entirety in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Timur Toktonaliev and Galim Faskhutdinov are IWPR contributors in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan respectively.

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