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  March 15, 2000  

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Central Asia/Russia

Bad neighbors, bad fences
By Nick Megoran

Strong protests by Kazakhstan's foreign minister over Uzbekistan's border incursion in late January drew attention to the boundary dispute between the two largest states in Central Asia. Little attention was paid, however, to an incident that occurred at the same time as part of a longer-running, more complicated, and potentially more disruptive border conflict in the region - namely, that between Uzbekistan and its smaller neighbor Kyrgyzstan.

That conflict centers on Uzbekistan's unilateral demarcation of its border and its alleged seizure of large areas of Kyrgyz agricultural land lent to Uzbekistan for temporary usage during the Soviet period but never returned. It was intensified by bombings in February 1999 in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, that were blamed on Islamic militants and later the same year by the invasion of the Kyrgyz region of Batken by an armed group opposed to Uzbek President Islam Karimov. In response, Uzbekistan sealed its border and last fall began constructing a barbed wire fence around long sections of its Ferghana Valley border with Kyrgyzstan.

The same week as the Kazakh-Uzbek conflict occurred, a 2-meter section of this fence on the road between the southern Kyrgyz regional capital of Osh and the small provincial town of Aravon was cut through and cleared away. By the time Uzbek officials discovered what had happened and had brought engineers to repair the damage, it was evident from tire marks in the mud that a number of vehicles had already crossed the border.

But neither terrorists nor Kyrgyz protesters were responsible for this incident. Rather, it was local Uzbekistani citizens who cut through the border to transport goods to sell in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan's almost complete closure of the border to vehicles since last summer has led to shortages of certain goods and rising prices in Kyrgyzstan. Smuggling has mushroomed and is largely carried out by Uzbek citizens for Kyrgyz citizens who place orders for particular goods. Differences in prices mean that dangerous acts such as breaking through a border can be profitable.

In addition, transport links have been seriously impeded in the Ferghana Valley by the border closure. The routes from Osh to almost all other towns in the south of Kyrgyzstan pass at least once through newly established or recently strengthened Uzbek checkpoints. Buses can be taken only to the border, where they stop and turn back, leaving passengers to walk through customs and take another bus to the next checkpoint. Journey times to some outlying mountainous regions have increased threefold, and costs have been pushed up not only by the need for more buses but also by bribes to be paid at checkpoints. Such costs hit hard in an area of rural poverty.

Another group to be particularly affected by the border closures is the sizeable Uzbek minority of southern Kyrgyzstan, where tension between it and the Kyrgyz majority as well as the Soviet authorities' poor handling of the situation flared into bitter inter-communal violence in 1990, leaving 170 people dead. Although there has been no repeat of that incident, some mutual suspicion still exists, and last year's border disputes with Uzbekistan added to the tensions.

Most of Kyrgyzstan's Uzbeks have extensive networks of family and friends across the border, and many had looked to Uzbek President Islam Karimov as a guarantor of their position. However, the border closures and recent tightening of the visa regime have largely destroyed that sense of security and left them with the feeling of not being entirely welcome in either state. Furthermore, anti-Uzbek rhetoric in Kyrgyzstan's press about the dispute has done little to help the image of the Kyrgyz Uzbeks, who are often suspected of being more loyal to Tashkent than to Bishkek.

But it is not only communities immediately along the border that have felt the effects of its reinforcement. In the Kyrgyz parliament in 1999, the "border issue" became a key element in political battles between the government and the nationalist opposition in a year leading up to parliamentary and presidential elections. The response of the Kyrgyz government last year was markedly different from that of its Kazakh neighbors this January. It avoided almost all mention of the dispute, emphasizing instead President Akaev's "Silk Road diplomacy" of regional co-operation, which, it said, would solve all border problems in the long term by re-opening the ancient trade routes to Europe and China. The opposition dismissed these as empty words, and pointed to the government's perceived failure to prevent Uzbekistan from advancing border posts into Kyrgyz territory as indicative of the presidential administration's weakness.

Uzbekistan's efforts in 1999 and 2000 to secure its previously porous boundaries have shown how hard it is to introduce the concept of well delineated nation-states into the Ferghana Valley. In this area, any neat division of territory on the basis of ethnic mix or economic activity is almost impossible, and the complicated history of integrated use of border land makes it hard to determine ownership.

However, neither these theoretical considerations nor the practical difficulties being experienced by ordinary inhabitants of the Valley have discouraged the Uzbek state from demarcating and militarizing its border as quickly as possible in order to stave off possible attacks. The isolated actions of local inhabitants cutting through sections of the border are unlikely to alter that commitment.

Copyright (c) 2000 RFE/RL, Inc. (All rights reserved)

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