Here’s some good news for the Ferghana Valley: Uzbekistan has reopened its frontier with Kyrgyzstan, 18 months after unilaterally screwing it shut. Tashkent closed the border during the bloody ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, dramatically wounding trade in southern Kyrgyzstan.
One study last winter found commerce in the region’s largest market, Kara-Suu, had fallen by 75 percent, encouraging higher food prices and smuggling.
The Dostuk (“Friendship”) border post between Osh and Andijan reopened early on October 26, Bishkek’s AKIpress news agency reported. There is no word yet whether other posts along the 1100-kilometer frontier will open.
But why now, four days before Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, when Bishkek is bracing for more political or ethnic violence? Wasn’t Tashkent’s original logic to keep Kyrgyzstan’s messy politics contained?
A few possibilities come to mind:
For one thing, the reopening, decided on in Tashkent, looks like a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, the leading candidate in the October 30 poll. Opening the border would revive commerce, which could add a notch to the premier’s belt. Moreover, though the rights of minority ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan may not be the top priority on Uzbekistan’s foreign-policy list, Tashkent has shown concern about the issue, and Atambayev stands apart from the two other leading candidates as less of a nationalist hothead. (Besides, if, heaven forbid, the election should trigger a new round of interethnic strife, Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks in the south would have somewhere to run.)
Perhaps more decisively, the reopening gives Kyrgyzstan a little less reason to cozy up to Moscow. Tashkent has watched with concern as the Kremlin expands its economic influence (and aggressive rhetoric) in Central Asia. With Moscow courting Bishkek to join its Customs Union, which Atambayev has supported in word if not yet deed, Tashkent may be feeling surrounded. Just last week, on October 19, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he would like to see Tajikistan join as well, further encircling Central Asia’s largest market.
With the border open again, Kyrgyzstani traders can presumably resume their lucrative re-export of cheap Chinese goods into the 28-million-strong Uzbek market. And with trade set to pick up, there’s suddenly less of a reason for Bishkek to hurry into Moscow’s economic embrace.
Score one for Tashkent.
Don’t be fooled, however, by the checkpoint’s cheerful moniker. Official interactions on the poorly defined frontier remain fraught. The day the border post reopened, AKIpress reported Uzbek guards had shot a Kyrgyzstani man searching for his sheep.