The collapse of the Soviet Union left industry scattered across the Fergana Valley regardless of modern borders. This oil field stands near Jany Jer, Kyrgyzstan, on the Uzbek border.
Last October, according to Kyrgyz accounts, Tajik soldiers crossed into disputed territory to repair an oil and gas well that a Tajik company had used since independence—pumping, by some estimates, 5 tons of oil a day. Kyrgyz border guards took notice, shut down the operation, and told the Tajiks to get lost.
Could that episode have led to a shootout between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards near Ak-Sai on January 11? Both countries are starved for energy resources, so the idea they could fight over an oilfield seems plausible.
When Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were all Soviet republics, their winding, undefined borders mattered little. But when Moscow’s rule evaporated, the Soviets left an industrial legacy overlying the Fergana Valley’s new borders: crisscrossing pipelines and derelict derricks in no man’s land.
Since the 1970s, Soviet Tajikistan and then the Republic of Tajikistan had been pumping oil from the field, Katta-Tuz, which the Kyrgyz say is on disputed territory. “In August 2013 I told them to stop,” recalls Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Tokun Mamytov. “It’s a big problem. […] The first problem is not the road, but oil and gas.” (Mamytov’s counterparts in Tajikistan refused to comment.)
Turkmenistan has called up military reservists to train on its border with Afghanistan following reports of recent skirmishes with Afghanistan-based militants.
On March 18 the Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) service reported that Turkmen reservists were being summoned to military enlistment offices to "undergo retraining" near Afghanistan. "In particular, several tens of people have been sent to Serhetabad (formerly Kushka) in the country's south in the past few weeks," ATN said, citing "reliable sources.” The soldiers are being housed in separate barracks without leave and are subject to strict military discipline, ATN said: "There is no more information but there is no talk of full mobilization. Our sources in Ashgabat haven't yet received summons to military enlistment offices."
The news service, run by exiled Turkmen opposition members, linked the move to recent violence on Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan. Afghan media reported on February 26 that a group of Taliban fighters had killed three Turkmen border guards. A Taliban source later denied involvement. ATN cited Turkmen sources saying the number of border guards killed may have been five.
Underscoring how instability has spread to the bordering provinces, on March 18 AFP reported that a suicide bomber on a motorbike killed at least 15 people at a crowded market in Afghanistan's Faryab Province, which borders Turkmenistan. There was no immediate claim for the attack.
Four days after the mysterious, violent deaths of 11 men near Kyrgyzstan’s border with China, key questions remain unanswered – like why none of the men, whom Kyrgyz officials suspect of decapitating a local hunter and plotting terrorism, could be taken alive. In a country where conspiracy theories flourish and distrust of authorities abounds, many Kyrgyz, including some lawmakers, seem to doubt official explanations.
"There's a lot that's not clear. There are no witnesses. We don't know whom to believe. Some people say one thing, others say something completely different,” Kyrgyz lawmaker Nurlan Torbekov, an Afghan war vet, was quoted as saying by Kloop.kg on January 27.
Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service says the men, tentatively identified as ethnic Uighurs, crossed over from China’s Xinjiang Province and were carrying belongings that indicate they harbored “extremist” views – prayer rugs, a Koran, knives, masks, a compass, and more.
The group, described initially as “armed,” had one gun. They had stolen it from the Kyrgyz hunter, Alexander Barykin, whom they allegedly killed early on January 23 about 40 kilometers inside Kyrgyz territory after he killed two of them. Later that day, the remaining nine suspects in Barykin’s murder were “liquidated” by border troops, the only witnesses.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan say they have killed 11 unidentified attackers in a remote mountain valley near China, sparking a storm of speculation but providing very little concrete information about what happened or how.
The State Border Service said in a statement that the members of a “criminal gang” had been killed while putting up resistance on January 23 at an isolated frontier post, some 40 kilometers from the Chinese border, after they had killed a hunter and used his gun against border troops.
It’s unclear what the alleged attackers, nationality unknown, were doing running around in the dead of winter in a remote region where mountain valleys average above 3,500 meters (11,500 feet), but Kyrgyz media, officials and talking heads were happy to spend the day speculating, pontificating, and criticizing the bizarre situation.
Governor Emil Kaptagaev of Issyk-Kul Province, where the incident took place, started the guesswork off provocatively when he suggested the group could be Uighur militants from China. (No stranger to drama, Kaptagaev made headlines last autumn when he was kidnapped and doused with petrol by match-wielding constituents demanding the nationalization of a Canadian-run gold mine not far from Thursday’s shootout.)
Nearly a week after a border shootout between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Dushanbe admitted firing mortars, raising the specter of further militarization along the disputed frontier. And conflicting stories about exactly what happened have developed into a heated diplomatic row with the potential to do long-lasting damage to once-decent ties.
On January 17, six days after the violence, a Tajik official finally commented on allegations that his troops had fired mortar rounds at Kyrgyz border guards. Yes, Tajikistan did, said Major-General Sharaf Faizullayev, first deputy commander of Tajikistan’s border troops. But the outnumbered Tajiks used mortars only to protect themselves after first being fired upon by Kyrgyz sharpshooters and without the intention to hurt anyone, he said.
"Given the numerical superiority of the Kyrgyz border guards and the intensity of their fire, a decision was made to use a small-caliber mortar to curb [the Kyrgyz’s] fire with the aim of evacuating the wounded," Faizullayev said in comments carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. He added that the fighting occurred on Tajik territory.
Days after an agreement that had the potential to ease tensions on the disputed border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a shootout between the countries’ border guards left several injured on each side January 11, local media report. In what could herald a sharp escalation in the simmering conflict, a Kyrgyz official has alleged that Tajik troops used heavy weapons.
As usual, there are conflicting stories over how the violence started.
Several Kyrgyz news outlets reported that Tajik border guards shot first after an altercation over road construction on contested territory. The 24.kg news agency said at least five Kyrgyz guards were wounded and that angry local civilians were protesting in the village of Kok-Tash.
Citing a local Tajik resident, Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news agency also reported that Tajik guards clashed with their counterparts over the construction of a road through disputed territory. But in this account, Kyrgyz border guards fired first, wounding two Tajik guards.
Soviet map of the Fergana Valley circa 1930. Many of these borders later changed. Vorukh (Варух), for example, is now a Tajik exclave surrounded by Kyrgyzstan.
No villagers were taken hostage this time. No one got shot. But a disputed parcel of the populous Fergana Valley, where there is little government, little water, and little arable land, has seen yet another dicey ethnic standoff in recent days.
This time, after an arson attack allegedly destroyed a Kyrgyz teahouse in a disputed spot on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan frontier, local Kyrgyz reportedly blamed an ethnic Tajik and blocked the only road to a Tajik exclave, Vorukh. Some reports said Tajiks then blocked a road connecting the Kyrgyz village, Ak-Sai, with the regional seat of government, Batken.
Vorukh, home to approximately 30,000 Tajik citizens, is surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Though the status of the exclave is not in dispute, the land surrounding it, including most of Ak-Sai, is. During the regulardisputes, Kyrgyz living in Ak-Sai – situated in a narrow valley of apricot orchards – can besiege Vorukh. They reportedly reopened the road on December 21.
The prejudice (and sometimes violence) faced by labor migrants from Uzbekistan abroad is well-documented. But the trials and tribulations they face just leaving home is less publicized.
Most migrants heading to Russia first cross the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan at Chernyayevka, near Tashkent.
Thousands of people mass every day at Chernyayevka, which is the old Soviet name for a village now called Gisht-Kuprik on the Uzbek side and Zhibek Zholy in Kazakhstan.
On a recent November afternoon the crowds – travelers visiting relatives and taking trips as well as labor migrants – were waiting several hours just to leave Uzbekistan.
The longest line was to enter the border crossing: Hundreds of people massed outside in a disorderly queue, which patrolling border guards made no attempts to control other than to open the gates and allow around 10 people through every five minutes or so. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest exercise: Every time the gates open, the line surges forward and the strongest push the weakest back in order to fight closer to the front.
Verbal arguments frequently break out among frustrated travelers, and the occasional scuffle too. One woman fainted in the crush, but the patrolling border guard refused to allow her to bypass the line. The guard intervened only once, when, unable to bear the wait any longer, one couple gave up and climbed over the barrier to leave. “What are you doing?” he shouted at them. “Going home,” replied the man. “This is impossible!”
Uzbekistan's customs declaration: All kinds of pitfalls for the unwary traveler.
Uzbekistan’s new currency restrictions have generated some bafflement inside the country, as EurasiaNet.org has already reported – but confusion over the Byzantine regulations regulating the sale and movement of dollars and other currencies, including the Uzbek som, is nothing new.
That bewilderment helps fuel a booming business at Uzbekistan’s main land border with Kazakhstan, where intermediaries are on hand to help the perplexed traveler navigate the obligatory customs forms – for a small consideration, naturally.
The intermediaries, all from Uzbekistan, accost travellers on both sides of the Chernyayevka border post near Tashkent and are also present in the Uzbek customs section, where officials presumably turn a blind eye in exchange for a share in the profits.
The form fillers offer assistance in navigating the Byzantine bureaucracy for a fee of 100 tenge (about 65 cents) or 2,000 sums ($1 at the official rate or around 80 cents at the black market rate).
On a recent Saturday afternoon they were doing a roaring trade. But why would anyone pay someone to fill in a form he could just complete himself, I asked one matronly Uzbek woman who approached me offering her services.
“Different reasons,” she said. “Some don’t have a pen, others have forgotten their glasses, a few can’t write.” She and her giggling colleagues were performing a “public service,” she joked with a flash of gold teeth.
Uzbekistan is planning a rail link over a mountain pass that would link Tashkent directly to its territories in the Fergana Valley, bypassing the current line through Tajikistan, according to media reports.
Uzbekistan controls all of Tajikistan’s railway border crossings and often uses them as leverage over its poorer southeastern neighbor. It’s not unusual for Uzbekistan, trying to stymie Tajikistan’s plans to build a massive hydropower plant upstream, to cite “technical problems”, “terrorist sabotage”, or “weather delays” as reasons for extended closures at the border crossings.
Tajikistan maintains some leverage in these disputes thanks to the 70-mile stretch of the Fergana main line that crosses its territory. Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley population of some 10 million relies on this line for its fuel supplies. Tajikistan also needs the line because factories and farms in Sughd Province and Khujand produce much of the country’s modest exportable goods base, including consumer items, processed foods, and clothing.
Thus, rail access for both countries is predicated on cooperation to keep the line open. An official from the Sughd Free Economic Zone once insisted to me that complications were overblown, and that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan “need each other.”