Officials in Tashkent unexpectedly closed the Kara-Suu-Avtodorozhnyy checkpoint to all traffic on March 1, saying the site needed repairs. A visit by a EurasiaNet correspondent on March 4 showed no sign of repair activity.
The shuttered border crossing is hurting local business, and stoking hard feelings. "The situation at the border is not quiet, and such conflicts take place more and more often. Human rights are abused by frontier guards and soldiers of both countries, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan," Azamjan Askarov, a human rights activist from Jalalabad Province told EurasiaNet.
Trouble began escalating early in 2010. On January 17 in the Jalalabad District, for example, Uzbek soldiers shot a Kyrgyz frontier guard and held him prisoner for six days. In recent weeks, incidents have grown more frequent. Helping to fuel the confrontational mood is the fact that roughly 20 percent of the 1,375-long border has not been clearly defined.
On March 1, Kyrgyz border guards in Jalalabad Province detained four Uzbek shepherds, accusing them of crossing the border illegally. One of the detainees escaped while the remaining three were questioned by Kyrgyz National Security Service agents. Three days later, on March 4, according to local press reports, Kyrgyz frontier guards shot and killed an Uzbek citizen and wounded another in Batken Province.
Kubanych Sarbaev, the head of the Border Service of Kyrgyzstan, blamed the "Uzbek nationals' unlawful actions," adding that "one of them attacked a senior border guard," the 24.kg news agency quoted him as saying on March 5.
"It looks now like Kyrgyz soldiers and frontier guards are taking revenge," said Almaz, a Jalalabad-based human rights activist who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. "Soldiers from both sides who shoot at people or violently abuse their rights are never punished by their supervisors. This is why incidents are taking place, and their number will increase."
Uzbekistan routinely closes its borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan without notice. The latest closure, however, has many merchants fearing a permanent drop in business around the bustling Kyrgyz town of Kara-Suu, home to the Fergana Valley's largest wholesale market, and a conduit for Chinese goods en route to Uzbek markets.
"Actually, the checkpoint was closed at the beginning of February by the other side," Ravshan, a 32-year-old ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan who works at a small roadside diner near the frontier, told EurasiaNet. "It is very bad for local businesses. Look at our cafe. Look at nearby little shops. They have lost their customers. Now you can see a few people here, and a month ago, this street was full of hundreds of people, coming from and going to Uzbekistan."
A Kyrgyz customs officer at the Kara-Suu crossing said that the Uzbeks have given no indication when the checkpoint will reopen. "They closed the checkpoint on February 6, allowing only Kyrgyz citizens go back into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbek citizens into their country. Since March 1, the checkpoint has been completely closed. It's not us. It's them. We did not close our checkpoint. Now it looks like they are not going to reopen it," he said on condition of anonymity.
Following the Andijan massacre in 2005, Uzbekistan permanently closed several frontier posts with Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The nearest checkpoint to the Kara-Suu crossing is now in Osh, 20 kilometers away. Locals complain of long waits there on the Uzbek side. "A few days ago . . . it took me about four hours to cross the border. And it took me another two or three hours to come back," said Mamyrjan, a 55-year-old entrepreneur from Osh. "Now I will avoid visiting my relatives in Uzbekistan."
Local observers say that Tashkent closed the border in order to make a show of strength to Kyrgyz leaders. "Uzbekistan is purposefully aggravating the situation . . . to use the tension as a political lever of influence on Bishkek," a Batken-based observer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Uzbekistan is not happy with ambitious hydroelectric projects on the Naryn River."
Alexander Knyazev, director of the Bishkek branch of the CIS Institute, expressed concern about the simmering tension, suggesting that the Kambarata dam project had the potential to spark armed conflict. "It is necessary to come to an agreement," Knyazev said. "The alternative is that nothing will prevent Uzbekistan from blocking construction of the Kambarata hydropower station, including the use of military methods of intervention."
Not only is Uzbekistan alarmed by Kambarata construction plans, Tashkent is also adamantly opposed to Bishkek's efforts to establish a Russian military base in the Fergana Valley, near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. An agreement was to be signed last November by the Kyrgyz and Russian presidents, but Moscow stalled after Tashkent balked. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Kyrgyzstan should have agreed to this issue with its neighbors, first of all with Uzbekistan," Knyazev said. "Now it appears that Kyrgyzstan is provoking a clash between Russia and Uzbekistan, but neither Uzbekistan nor Russia will yield to this."
Jonibek Kadamjayov is the pseudonym for a Kyrgyz journalist.