Nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan cooled somewhat on March 21 with news that both sides agreed to draw back their forces from a disputed area.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan, who have been the only ones willing to volunteer any firm information, said that the de-escalation was the result of negotiations among border officials.
The standoff is focused around a road that links two remote Kyrgyz towns, Kerben and Ala-Buka, but passes through contested territory fringing Uzbekistan. There are many similar roads lacking demarcation across the Ferghana valley and drivers are frequently obliged to pass through neighboring territory.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service reported on March 18 that Uzbek troops had blocked an unmarked section of the Kerben-Ala-Buka road. Officials said Uzbekistan’s military deployed armored personnel carriers, two Kamaz trucks and up to 40 troops to the disputed area, which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Ferghana city of Namangan.
The number of troops from either side has been brought down to eight apiece, according to Kyrgyz officials.
Some local media in Uzbekistan cited border service sources in Tashkent as saying that the mobilization was a routine reinforcement for Nowruz festivities on March 21.
But officials in Kyrgyzstan are pointing to another explanation.
The Kyrgyz government’s special envoy on border issues, Kurbanbai Iskandarov, told Kloop.kg news website that the Uzbek closure of the border area was linked to a water reservoir in the area that is used by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan alike.
Iskandarov told Kloop that Uzbekistan had asked Bishkek for permission to send specialists to the 165 million cubic meter Orto-Tokoi (Kasan-Sai) reservoir to carry out routine repair works, but that this plea was rejected pending further talks. That denial of access is what seems to have sparked the Uzbek deployment of forces.
“According to all the documents, this is our territory, so in the event of repair works being required, they should be carried out by the Kyrgyz side,” Iskandarov said.
This area has been a source of contention between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan since the 1930s, when both sides were nascent Soviet republics. With the growing importance of the cotton industry to the economy of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley, Moscow ordered that the Kyrgyz Soviet government allocate large quantities of its water resources to its neighbor. In the early 1940s, 660 hectares of land were transferred to Uzbekistan for the construction of the reservoir, which was completed in 1954.
Uzbekistan enlarged the reservoir in 1972 and provided the Kyrgyz SSR with land as compensation. Rival territorial claims resumed in 1991 as both sides claimed ownership of the reservoir.
Uzbekistan argues that it is entitled to the reservoir since it built it with its own resources. Kyrgyzstan says that regardless of such distinctions, the reservoir is on its land.
As long as these kinds of disputes remain at intergovernmental level, there is always a good chance they can be defused through timely talks.
The volatile brand of nationalism that Kyrgyz authorities have sought at stages to exploit, however, is the dangerous unpredictable element here. Police in the Osh region said they are investigating a video appeal by a 30-year old calling for large numbers of people to head to an area near were the border dispute is simmering.
Police say the appeal was an act of bravado and that the man in question did not himself have any intention to organize any unrest.
They may not always be so lucky.
The events in south Kyrgyzstan in 2010 demonstrate the ability for ethnic Kyrgyz communities to mobilize in large numbers in violent situations. Any crowd, even if supported by Kyrgyz government troops, would be little match for heavily-armed Uzbek forces, however.