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

Village Defies Uzbek Government

Kazakstan and Uzbekistan lock horns over border village
By Daur Dosybiev

The residents of Bagys, on the Kazak-Uzbek border, are battling to avoid being locked into a country in which none of them want to live. Tashkent claims the village is on Uzbek land. No, say its 1,000 residents, " every single one of us is Kazak".

In this bitter struggle both sides wave contradictory old maps at each other and constantly trash each other's signboards.

The dispute is one of many Central Asian border problems inherited from the days when the region was run by the Soviet Union. During that era, Moscow redrew the frontiers of its Asian republics several times in pursuit of some inscrutable "greater good".

A Kazak-Uzbek government commission is now seeking to untangle the rival claims but so far they have settled boundaries on only about 10 per cent of their 1,190 kilometre-long border.

Bagys people believe their case is unique because, unlike other disputed areas which have mixed populations, their town is 100 per cent Kazak. When Uzbek border guards tried to stake out Bagys as Uzbek territory, residents launched a vigorous protest, persuading Tashkent to desist.

Now, though, there are fears in Bagys that Astana may be going soft on the issue for fear of upsetting Uzbekistan.

Akhmet-ata, a 78-year-old Second World War veteran, has lived in Bagys since the community was established. He is convinced that members of the delimitation panel are unfamiliar with the true state of affairs:

"The Uzbek side relies on 1963 maps which place Bagys within the Bostandyk municipality which was handed over to Uzbekistan," the veteran said. "But we have found a 1941 map where Bagys is designated as part of the Saryagash municipality in Kazakstan

"There isn't a single record of Bagys being transferred from one municipality to another. There are three Kazak cemeteries in Bagys, but the commission only mentions two. We must take urgent action or I fear that our young people may violently resist the Uzbeks."

Like many of his peers, Bakhyt, 30, feels very strongly about the issue. "There's been a lot of talking," he said. "They've been telling us about the complex delimitation process and some land exchange schemes, but this is the land of our forefathers, and we are not leaving."

Talking to journalists and Bagys residents, Kazak officials on the bilateral delimitation commission always assure them that the community's national affiliation will be considered most thoroughly.

The chief of the commission's Kazak group promised locals that Bagys would remain Kazak territory. Grateful residents said they would rename their town after the official as a token of thanks.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has been taking preemptive steps to demonstrate it owns the territory. From time to time, border posts and barriers suddenly appear in the neighbourhood.

Until last year, a signpost outside Bagys used to display the community's name and the national emblem of Kazakstan. Townsfolk were enraged when Uzbek guards erased it.

Tashkent's eagerness to embrace Bagys is to some extent explained by geography. Kazakstan, with 15 million people, is five times bigger than Uzbekistan which has a population of 24 million and growing. Most of the latter is sandy desert, and it greatly covets the fertile land around Bagys.

Tensions are running high as residents stage rallies in protest at commission members' statements which they regard as too equivocal. Locals no longer know whether they live in Kazakstan or Uzbekistan. They warn they will take any steps, no matter how radical, to be part of Kazakstan.

One major concern is that while Tashkent has adopted the Latin alphabet, Astana is still using Cyrillic. Bagys residents fear this could become a major impediment for their children when they try to enrol in a Kazakstan college should the community become part of Uzbekistan.

One Kazak member of the governmental commission on border delimitation, southern Kazakstan's deputy governor, Nurlan Seitjapparov, caused a stir by asking journalists not to "raise a hullabaloo" over the Bagys question.

"Challenging negotiations are in progress," he explained, "but I assure you our commission will remain focused on the Bagys issue. There's nothing to worry about so far.

"We will not let anyone impinge on our people's rightful interests, but the border between Kazakstan and Uzbekistan must be a border between two friendly nations. Being mindful of our citizens' concerns, we must also preserve our good neighbourly relations with Uzbekistan.

"It is our duty to find a compromise. We will invite feedback from the local residents, but we cannot be guided solely by their interests."

It was this last part of the statement that infuriated the people of Bagys. How, they asked, can the interests of a nation and its citizens be at variance?

Some do not fully understand Seitjapparov's concern over the Uzbek side taking umbrage at press coverage. "What about residents of Bagys -aren't they also offended by the situation?" they say.

Years ago, the Makhtaaral municipality of southern Kazakstan was also handed over to Uzbekistan but later returned to the Kazak Soviet Socialist Republic. Makhtaaral residents recall that Tashkent never invested a penny in their municipality. Bagys people fear they may suffer the same fate.

A Bagys resident, who wouldn't give her name, said, "You don't know what it's like to be apart from your nation, some Kazaks in a neighbouring village had to take Uzbek passports to find jobs. There are families where the man is an Uzbek while the wife and children are Kazak citizens.

" Looks like our fellow Kazaks do not need us anymore, and we're aliens to the Uzbeks. We hope our government will not turn a blind eye to our suffering. That's the only hope that keeps us going."

Daur Dosybiev is an IWPR contributor