Uzbekistan has withdrawn its troops from a contested section of border with Kyrgyzstan, bringing a close to the uneasy tensions of the past week, according to a statement from Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration.
The chairman of the State Border Service, Raimberdi Duishenbiev, told President Almazbek Atambayev that the Uzbek forces had pulled out their equipment and manpower from the Chalasart settlement, in the Aksy district of the Jalal-Abad region, as of 8:00 a.m. local time on March 26.
In accordance with the outcome of negotiations, which took place on March 25, border defenses will now revert to routine levels.
Uzbek troops arrived in the area on March 18 and occupied an unmarked section of road linking the Kyrgyz settlements of Kerben and Ala-Buka. Kyrgyz 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.
That sparked a hasty mobilization of troops by the Kyrgyz army, which warned that it would not stand down before the Uzbeks gave assurances they would do the same. On the southern flank of Uzbekistan’s portion of the Ferghana Valley, Kyrgyz troops also blocked roads linking the Uzbek enclaves of Sokh and Shahimardan to the rest of the country, effectively stranding its residents. Those troops have also now been pulled back.
On March 21, both sides agreed on measures to soothe tensions in Chalasart by bringing down troop numbers to eight apiece, according to Kyrgyz officials.
In keeping with its typical protocol, Uzbekistan remained officially tight-lipped about the motivations for its escalation.
But Kyrgyz officials revealed that the dispute centered on rival claims to a water reservoir. The Kyrgyz government’s special envoy on border issues, Kurbanbai Iskandarov, said 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. The denial of access sparked the Uzbek deployment.
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 differences resumed in 1991 as both sides re-asserted claims over the reservoir.
Uzbekistan argues that it is entitled to the reservoir since it was built with its own resources. Kyrgyzstan says that regardless of such distinctions, the reservoir is on its land.
Although the current stand-off has passed, there is no clear indication that a long-term understanding has been reached about how the reservoir is to be shared.
President Almazbek Atambayev himself candidly admittedly that there are dozens of problem sections of the border, any of which could lead to a flare-up at the slightest instigation.
“We don’t need war. Whoever starts war, we will not be the ones that start it, but of course we are always willing to respond,” Atambayev said on March 24 in remarks quoted by AKIpress. “But I want to repeat once again that the situation needs to be studied with patience, because there are more than 50 sections of border like the one at Chalasart.”
Speaking to reporters after the withdrawal of Uzbek troops, Iskandarov gave slightly jumbled assurances, stressing that Kyrgyzstan had taken measures to disentangle itself from its reliance on its larger neighbor.
“On the issue of delimitation, our country is no longer the one we had in the 2000s. We have built roads and we do not depend on the transit of electricity, we have water,” he said in remarks carried by AKIpress. “We will conduct negotiations on every undefined section (of border).”
Less reassuringly, Iskandarov admitted that the Uzbeks continued to maintain troops at the Orto-Tokoi/Kan Sai reservoir, which is technically speaking well within Kyrgyzstan’s boundaries.
Around the time the crisis began, media reported that Uzbekistan was purporting to be putting together a sizable delegation to provide humanitarian assistance for communities living near the reservoir.
This story has been given short shrift by the Kyrgyz government. Iskandarov said that any such aid needed to be agreed in advance between the countries’ foreign ministries.
“Nobody is denying them the right to bring humanitarian assistance to Orto-Koi. But they can freely bring this aid through official border checkpoints and not through unauthorized places,” he said.
While Uzbekistan’s desire to ensure access to water reserves cannot be in doubt, there are hints the Chalasart episode may ultimately prove to have been a feint — a test of Kyrgyzstan’s resolve.
As Iskandarov has stated, Uzbekistan’s most sought-after goal is to be given a permanent corridor to Sokh and Shahimardan. This issue too has something of a fraught history.
In 2001, Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement with Uzbekistan on the construction of a road that could ensure Uzbek residents free and unimpeded transit.
“But when the Kyrgyz side visited the site addressed by the signed agreement, it was found that it was not possible to build there. There are overhanging rocks and the [project] would have required millions to complete. And secondly, we have four inhabited settlements in this section [of proposed corridor]. We would have had to resettle them. The issue is closed,” Iskandarov said.
Giving Uzbek border authorities control over a corridor along existing roads, however, would in turn strand huge numbers of Kyrgyz citizens living west of the enclaves. Iskandarov put the number of those people in the Batken region at around 200,000.
Uzbekistan may have historically proven an irascible neighbor, but it has refrained to date from resorting to settling border issues in anger through the active use of its superior firepower.
Kyrgyzstan is relying on its membership in the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to guarantee that remains the case in future, although the bloc has yet to be tested in such situations.