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Uzbek Visa Controversy

The lives of residents in border areas of Uzbekistan are being turned upside down by new visa restrictions
By Muazzam Ibrakhimova

A line drawn on a map has literally cut the village of Abjuvoz in the Andijan region in two.

Tashkent's imposition of visa restrictions for travel to and from neighbouring CIS countries has effectively closed the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, which runs through Abjuvoz, severely disrupted the lives of local people.

Abjuvoz residents face being relocated to villages outside the frontier area. Some now have barbed wire running right through their private property. "They came to me and said that part of my yard now belongs to a different state," says Salim-aka, an elderly Abjuvoz resident.

Apart from these absurdities, villagers are concerned that closing the frontier, and increasing the number of border guards, will seriously disrupt vital trade and cultural links between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.

The previously open border enabled trade between the two countries to flourish. Uzbeks imported Kyrgyz crafts and industrial goods, while the Kyrgyz imported meat and wool from Uzbekistan.

"We had a joint bazaar, but now border trade no longer exists, it's been closed down," says villager Yakutkhon Akhmedova. Like her fellow residents, she is finding the government's decision perplexing. "I don't know why they decided to divide up people's backyards, or why they decided to take away our income."

Uzbek schoolchildren are also affected. Their parents have traditionally preferred to send their children to Kyrgyz schools, because the level of teaching is thought to be higher.

Villagers are also upset with the attitude of regional officials, who tell them that their troubles are temporary, and that they will be moved to other regions. "But we don't want to be moved," says local resident Dilor Mukhiddinova. "We can't afford to move and we won't be compensated for the loss of our houses. This is the land of our forefathers, we like it here."

According to the First Secretary of the Kyrgyzstan Embassy in Uzbekistan, Uruzbek Moldaliev, Abjuvoz officials have jumped the gun, as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have not officially begun to demarcate the border. Only when this is done, he continues, can the barbed wire be rolled out. "The local bureaucrats are probably acting on their own initiative and all these measures are illegal."

A series of bomb explosions in Tashkent - which killed 16 people - and militant activity in nearby Kyrgyzstan prompted the Uzbek government's decision in January to impose visas. So far, Tashkent's neighbours have accepted the cross-border travel restrictions as a necessary evil.

The traditionally "invisible" borders between the CIS republics have made it easy for armed groups and criminals to move between countries.

That there is a genuine security threat to Uzbekistan is undeniable. But the situation could be handled with more sensitivity for citizens on the ground.

"Now I'm not sure which state I'm a citizen of or which country I'm living in," said one old man. "Before this barbed wire appeared life was fine."

Muazzam Ibrakhimova is editor of the Youth TV in Andijan.

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