After skirmishes earlier this week in a pocket of Uzbek territory inside Kyrgyzstan, observers say the situation remains uneasy.
While this localised conflict has been prevented from escalating, experts say the underlying causes are symptomatic of the difficulty of managing post-Soviet borders, especially in places like the Fergana Valley where they weave in and out and leave enclaves surrounded by another state.
Sokh is the biggest of these enclaves, located in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region but counted as part of Uzbekistan, with which it has a road link. The appearance of a new Kyrgyz border post last month increased residents’ sense of isolation and anxiety.
When workers then started laying on a power supply for the frontier post, angry residents had had enough, and on January 5 they attacked the unit.
A resident of Khushyar, a village near the town of Sokh, gave his account of what happened when the workers strayed across the road that forms the border between Kyrgyz and Uzbek territory.
“We began watching the Kyrgyz doing construction work, and then realised they were seizing our territory,” said the man, who did not want to be named. “We went over to them and told them to stop. Other neighbours came up as well. Then the Kyrgyz soldiers started firing, and several people were wounded. We took them to hospital.”
A later statement from the Uzbek government accused the Kyrgyz of sparking the incident by putting up electricity poles inside the Sokh enclave. It said five people were seriously injured when the border guards opened fire on villagers.
Kyrgyz border guards said they did use firearms, but only to fire warning shots in the air.
Interviewed by IWPR, the deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s frontier forces, Iskender Mambetaliev acknowledged that private contractors entered Uzbek territory, but he said this was due to error. They had been shown the precise route of the frontier boundary, but they didn’t follow instructions.”
He explained that for the sake of convenience, the workers wrongly decided to put up the new electricity poles next to old ones installed in Soviet times, and located on the Uzbek side of the border.
The following day, a group of Khushyar residents went to the nearby village of Charbak, inside Kyrgyzstan, and took a number of people hostage.
Guljigit Kojokov, a vet and local councillor who lives near Charbak, described the incursion.
“When it started, I went around [and saw] that poles had been pulled out of the ground, and the road was blocked. They entered the homes of Charbak residents, broke furniture, damaged electrical appliances, and took people hostage,” he said. “It was like being in a war.”
Other Kyrgyz nationals were seized from a vehicle crossing through Sokh – a normal route for getting between the eastern and western parts of Batken, which are virtually separated by the enclave.
Kyrgyz officials say some of the hostages were beaten up, while a border guard and a policeman had to be taken to hospital after the earlier incident.
Local government officials from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan stepped in to contain the escalating unrest, and the next day, January 7, they secured the release of the hostages, who numbered at least 30.
While a measure of order has been restored, observers describe the situation as tense.
All border crossings around Sokh have been closed and Kyrgyz villagers have reportedly set up groups of volunteers to patrol the border and block the road connecting Sokh with Uzbekistan. Mambetaliev played down the threat, acknowledging that groups of civilians had gathered along the road but insisting that traffic was still able to move along it.
An IWPR reporter who visited Charbak saw police and troops drafted in to protect it, billeted with local families and in a school. Some villagers, mostly women and children, have been evacuated.
The village was left without no electricity or water after mains supplies were cut by Sokh residents. The power was later partially restored and water was brought in from a natural spring a few kilometres away.
“Many people [in Charbak] are simply in shock,” Kojokov said. “They are scared even though the authorities say the situation is under control.”
Mambetaliev described the situation as “relatively stable”.
“We are in the process of assessing the scale of the damage,” he said, noting that Uzbek officials had offered to pay compensation after a joint meeting.
On the Uzbek side of the border, a Khushyar resident said that “people are angry and frightened, and now they will be more vigilant so as to ensure that no one crosses over from the other side”.
BORDER MANAGEMENT SEEN AS ESSENTIAL TO GOOD RELATIONS BETWEEN COMMUNITIES
Sukhrobjon Ismailov, head of the Expert Working Group, a think-tank in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, warns that the roots of the dispute have not gone away.
“Although there’s a truce, I don’t believe the problem has been dealt with. We have to anticipate similar emotional outbursts on both sides in the future,” he said.
The intensity of the reactions on either side shows how intractable border management has proved, not just around Sokh but between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan generally, and also other states.
The emergence of new states, and the gradual demarcation of often fuzzy borders, deprived many Fergana Valley communities of access to traditional sources of water and pastureland, as well as of general freedom of movement. Travellers through official border checkpoints are commonly subjected to humiliation and extortion, while anyone crossing an unmarked stretch risks getting shot.
As Ismailov put it, these are really matters for national governments to resolve.
“Over a long period, these issues haven’t been resolved by the two border guards services, or between Batken and [Uzbekistan’s] Fergana region,” he said. “Resolving this issue can only be done by the heads of state. If an agreement can be reached at that level, it will be a fair and lasting one.”
Without this kind of intervention, residents on both sides are left with a sense that their concerns are being ignored, and are liable to react disproportionately to minor frictions.
Igor Shestakov, an analyst in Bishkek, said that while confrontations and even shootings were not uncommon along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, this latest incident was worrying because of the personalised animosity it had generated.
“When people are taken hostage… it spills over to the general population,” he said.
Ismailov also speculated that emotions were running high because people remembered the mass clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek elsewhere in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010.
In Batken, the incident seems to have prompted people to mobilise and pressure the Kyrgyz government into addressing their demands.
In a report on the situation, the Batken office of the Foundation for International Tolerance, a conflict-prevention NGO, noted “dissatisfaction with and mistrust in the [Kyrgyz] authorities” among Charbak residents.
The failure of Kyrgyzstan’s interior minister to turn up during the unrest, even though he was visiting a neighbouring district of Batken at the time, exemplified the perceived lack of concern.
An elderly resident of Charbak expressed some of the dissatisfaction felt by people on the Kyrgyz side of the border, saying, “the Kyrgyz authorities should build a water mains and power lines that bypass the Uzbek village of Khushyar so that we aren’t reliant on them. Every year when conflicts occur, the Uzbeks destroy the water pipe. This isn’t the first conflict – there have been confrontations over pastures, water, land and the use of roads.”
Businessmen in Bishkek and Osh and others with relatives in Batken have provided money to pay for food and transport for volunteer patrols, while villages in the area have held meetings to formulate demands to central government. These include taking back an area of pasture land that was ceded to Sokh, and ending a water-sharing arrangement.
Some want to isolate Sokh completely until they get what they want.
“The authorities have shown weakness and have made our people suffer,” Kojokov said. “Now people want place Sokh under a blockade. The authorities say they’ve sealed the border, but people don’t believe them, so they are taking turns [on volunteer patrols] to make sure it stays that way.”
In such a fraught atmosphere, grassroots demands of this kind are liable to ignore the needs of the other side. Ismailov believes local-level leaders can no longer manage such disputes.
“Local authorities [of the two states] have held meetings over many years, but we’ve seen such incidents repeating themselves, often with a lethal outcome,” he said.
Altynai Myrzabekova is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kyrgyzstan. Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR senior editor for Uzbekistan. Anvar Khaldarov is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Kyrgyzstan.