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

Tensions Mount on Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border

While Bishkek and Tashkent continue to downplay frictions, the increasing
By IWPR

By Sultan Jumagulov in Bishkek (RCA No. 138, 16-Aug-02)


Uzbek border guards have been accused of firing shots at two cars driven by


Kyrgyz citizens in the southern Batken region of Kyrgyzstan, which borders


Uzbekistan's Fergana area.


While one Fergana official told IWPR that he is not aware of the incident,


which is alleged to have taken place on August 13, the Batken authorities


have lodged a protest with their Uzbek counterparts.


The shooting claim is only the latest in a long line of incidents involving


the two republics along their still-disputed boundary.


A Kyrgyz shepherd was recently admitted to hospital with severe concussion


after being detained by Uzbek border guards. Talant Khaliev and his brother


Talas were held on suspicion of stealing wire from the barbed wire fence


that divides the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan from Fergana in Uzbekistan.


Their mother claims they were seized while tending their cattle and were


violently beaten before the authorities intervened.


Gulamjan Mamajanov, deputy head of administration of the Aravan district in


Osh, adds that 15,000 Kyrgyz som (around 350 US dollars) in damages had to


be paid before the men were released, despite no evidence they were involved


in the theft of the wire, which poverty-stricken local residents often sell


for scrap.


Uzbekistan has instigated an increasingly harsh regime of "border security"


in recent years, including the ongoing installation of an 800-km long fence


between the countries.


This has been erected even though the official boundary between the two


states is still to be agreed, and more than 130 disputed sections remain a


decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Uzbek authorities argue that such measures, together with pro-active


policing, are necessary to stop the movement of Islamic extremists who have


been known to carry out operations in South Kyrgyzstan. "We have to defend ourselves, that is why we did it," said a Fergana official.


However, more than ten Kyrgyz citizens have been killed by Uzbek air-strikes


and landmines since 1999, and two more people were shot dead by border


guards in the Batken region this winter.


An increasing number of allegations of brutality against civilians are being


levelled against the border guards. Tashkent has so far refused to press


charges, claiming those involved are acting according to the law and


military code.


While protesting such treatment at diplomatic levels, Bishkek officials are


keen to emphasise that such reports of violence are local in nature and will


not affect wider relations between the states.


An official Uzbek expert, who did not want to be named, tried to downplay


the concern of the Kyrgyz authorities in the border regions and denied such


clashes would jeopardise relations between the two nations. "It is like two


families who live in the same house and their children sometimes quarrel. It


does not mean that the parents will get dragged into conflict," he told


IWPR.


Kyrgyz journalist Beken Nazaraliev believes that Bishkek has adopted an


"indifferent attitude" rather than stepping in to prevent Uzbek security


forces turning weapons against civilians. "They appear more concerned with


enforcing internal order after recent upheavals in southern border areas,"


said Nazaraliev.


The anti-government protests in the Jalal-Abad and Osh regions of Kyrgyzstan


over spring and summer saw six protesters shot by Kyrgyz police and


culminated in the government being forced to stand down. While the


large-scale demonstrations now seem to have been dispersed, President Askar


Akaev's administration is still keeping a close eye on events.


Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Dooronbek Sadyrbaev fears that such a refocusing


of priorities will corrode the republic's territorial integrity. "Our


authorities have thrown all of their force against the internal opposition,


thus weakening our external borders," he said. "Such a miscalculation may


turn into major losses for the state."


He points to the case of ten Uzbek citizens who recently slipped across the


border and allegedly beat up a number of Kyrgyz citizens and stole their


valuables.


Asked about this incident, Kyrgyz law enforcement officials said it was the


result of a business disagreement between citizens of both countries, and


several Uzbek citizens have been detained in Kyrgyzstan amid continuing


investigations.


Journalist Marip Taichabarov, who regularly covers Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations,


says that Tashkent's border guards and customs officers currently feel


themselves to be the masters of the situation. He argued that Bishkek needs


to take back some of the initiative.


"Only by adopting adequate measures towards Uzbekistan, such as the


installation of fences and the creation of checkpoints, will the Bishkek


authorities achieve balance on the problematic border," he said.


However, Kyrgyz army general and parliamentary deputy Ismail Isakov fears


that recent treaties ceding some disputed land could trigger larger-scale


aggressive stances by neighbouring states.


"Our political leadership has created a precedent, having given up our


territories to China. This has provided an opportunity for other neighbours


to push their border claims aggressively," he told IWPR.


Akaev recently declared 2003 to be the year of Kyrgyz statehood. If he is to


preserve and strengthen the country's sovereignty, he now appears to face


some hard choices internally as well as externally.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek