With nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border only now dissipating, authorities in Bishkek have embarked on the potentially foolhardy move of helping themselves to four Uzbek-owned resorts at a popular tourist destination.
Local media has been full of the news about embattled Prime Minister Temir Sariyev signing a government order to appropriate the resorts on Issyk-Kul lake on April 4.
The timing is awkward, although it could stand to help Sariyev out of a tight spot.
On March 26, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan pulled back troops from a disputed section of shared border, ending an uneasy week-long standoff sparked by the sudden deployment of Uzbek soldiers and military vehicles to the area.
On balance, it feels like Uzbekistan lost the battle of wits and nerves. It withdrew its forces first from the high-altitude territory without ever properly explaining what prompted it to mobilize its men in the first place.
Still, the episode did momentarily blow some wind into the beleaguered opposition’s sails, so Sariyev may be looking to shore up his position and exploit the patriotic card to forestall an expected vote of no-confidence in parliament.
By all appearances, this looks like an ill-conceived gambit. According to a report by Tazabek.kg, only one of the four resorts seems to be long-term leased to a commercial organization, while the other three were controlled by state-owned Uzbek entities.
The agreements underpinning the ownership of the resorts date back to the Soviet era, when power-brokers in Moscow decided to boost Issyk-Kul’s profile as a place of rest and therapeutic treatments.
Uzbekistan has withdrawn its troops from a contested section of border with Kyrgyzstan, bringing a close to the uneasy tensions of the past week, according to a statement from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.
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.
A sudden deployment of troops by Uzbekistan along a disputed section of border has rattled nerves in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service reported on March 18 that Uzbek troops have blocked an unmarked section of the frontier linking the localities of Kerben and Ala-Buka, two areas of Kyrgyzstan lying either side of a spur of Uzbekistan.
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 Foreign Ministry in Bishkek summoned Uzbek ambassador Komil Rashidov and handed him a note of protest. The letter demanded that Uzbek forces dismantle checkpoints set up in the border area.
Sections of the border between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Tajikistan, zigzag haphazardly for several hundred kilometers, requiring local people to either undertake long detours or traverse the neighboring nation’s territory, which can entail long waits.
Uzbek forces have closed the Madaniyat-Avtodorozhnyi crossing and are barring Kyrgyz citizens from entering Uzbekistan through the Dostuk-Avtodorozhnyi crossing. People are being allowed to leave Uzbekistan through the latter crossing, but cannot re-enter.
In response to the Uzbek deployments, Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces on March 19 dispatched two troop carriers of their own to the same area, explaining that they needed to bolster border security. Bishkek said it would draw back the troops as soon as Uzbekistan recalls its own forces.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may be close to striking a border delimitation deal that could mitigate the occasional flare-ups of unrest among communities in disputed areas.
Speaking on October 27, Kyrgyz deputy prime minister Abdyrahman Mamataliyev hailed the proposed land swap as a historic turning point, CA-News reported.
“This will be a mutually advantageous exchange — 12 hectares apiece. We will receive plots in the village of Kok-Tash, where a cemetery is located. They will get plots lower down from this village,” said Mamataliyev, whose ministerial brief includes border issues.
Negotiations on settling land disputes have long been hindered by each side’s insistence on sticking to delimitations dating back to the Soviet era, when the location of any particular border was of little real significance.
Tajikistan has suggested agreeing to a delimitation established in documents dating back to 1924-27, while Kyrgyzstan insists on a 1958 border. The latter arrangement was at the time approved by the Kyrgyz government, but not Tajikistan’s Supreme Soviet.
But Mamataliyev said the proposed solution has been hammered out without recourse to any historic maps.
Skirmishes sparked by a territorial dispute between residents along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border escalated on August 4, leaving several people injured and damaging multiple homes.
News website Asia-Plus cited Tajik officials as saying Kyrgyz border guards were actively engaged in the disturbances and deployed firearms. Kyrgyzstan promptly denied that accusation, but confirmed that shots were indeed fired, possibly from a shotgun.
The area at the focus of this and much previous unrest lies on the jagged frontier where the east of Tajikistan’s Sughd province and Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province meet.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service said the trouble began on August 3 after crowds on the Tajik side blocked a road passing through the village of Maiskoe, which is used by Kyrgyz residents from the village of Kok-Tash to reach a local cemetery.
“In protest, Kyrgyz citizens blocked the water in a canal that flows into the Tajik village of Chorku,” the border service said in a statement.
The account from Tajikistan, as told by a border service source to Asia-Plus, flips around the sequence. Tajik villagers barred the road to the cemetery because the flow of the river was stemmed, the source said.
Either way, given the value of the river in an otherwise highly barren region, it is likely that depriving a large village of water was what escalated the stakes.
Kyrgyz and Tajik soldiers have again exchanged fire on their disputed border, injuring and possibly killing civilians. This is their third shootout this year. But ominously, this time the fighting has spread to a new location, suggesting that the authorities’ halting efforts to end the long-festering dispute risk being overtaken by events on the ground.
As usual, both sides offer conflicting accounts of the August 25 violence. According to Kyrgyz officials, Tajik border guards attempted to establish a border post in a disputed area. Tajik civilians then tried to destroy a bridge used by Kyrgyz citizens. The Tajiks opened fire first and used mortars, say the Kyrgyz officials.
According to Tajik media citing an unnamed local official, five Tajik civilians received gunshot wounds in the skirmish, which began when the Kyrgyz started repair work on a bridge in disputed territory. Avesta reports two dead, a soldier and a civilian, in addition to the five injured. Kyrgyz troops fired first, according to this version, and the Tajiks did not return fire.
The shootout occurred in the extreme western district of Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province, in Leilek District, an area corresponding to the Bobojon Gafur District of Tajikistan’s Sughd Province. That is several hours’ drive from the site of recent violence.
A simmering water dispute between Astana and Bishkek is heating up, with Kyrgyzstan threatening to cut electricity to its neighbor and reportedly accusing Kazakh officials of attempted extortion – then denying it.
The dispute escalated on July 29 when Kyrgyzstan’s energy minister alleged, according to both Kyrgyz and Kazakh media reports, that unnamed Kazakh officials had attempted to bribe him during water and energy negotiations.
“They openly offered a bribe for the sale of energy at a low price to Kazakhstani consumers,” Osmonbek Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by CA-News.org. Kyrgyz negotiators “managed to hold out,” he was reported to have said.
On July 30, Artykbayev denied ever making such an accusation, using the time-honored explanation that reporters had distorted his words. He said he had been explaining how his ministry had stepped up the fight against corruption in the energy sector. “Unfortunately my words about the fight against corruption were incorrectly interpreted in individual media outlets,” Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Last month Artykbayev threatened to halt electric power exports to Kazakhstan, citing a water shortage. “It’s a difficult question, but there is not enough water in the Toktogul Reservoir, and we are faced with the question of supplying our own population,” Tengri News quoted him as saying on June 27. Kyrgyzstan generates over 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
At least one Uzbek border guard was killed in a clash with his Kyrgyz counterparts on July 23. But that’s about all the local media on both sides of the frontier agree on. Officials from the hostile neighbors are presenting differing accounts of the skirmish, including where it occurred.
Tashkent’s 12news.uz website describes a “provocation” on a farm in Namangan Region at around 9:30 a.m. Uzbek time (10:30 a.m. in Kyrgyzstan), when two Uzbek patrolmen tried to stop several “drunk” Kyrgyz guards armed with machine guns who had "intruded" onto Uzbekistan's territory. When the Uzbek guards tried to approach their Kyrgyz colleagues to "explain the seriousness of the situation," the latter opened fire without warning, killing one on the spot and seriously wounding the other in the chest. "Having finished their dirty job, the Kyrgyz bandits left our country," 12news.uz said.
The Uzbek Border Service found spent shells about 100 meters into Uzbek territory, the website said, adding that the second guard died in hospital.
Five shepherds and at least a thousand head of sheep seem to have become the latest victims in the ongoing border dispute between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Uzbek border guards seized the wandering ruminants earlier this month, Fergananews reported on June 24, citing the Tajik service of Radio Liberty, which in turn cited Tajik border guards in the northern province of Sughd. A father of one of the disappeared shepherds said the number of abducted animals was 2,200 sheep plus 41 cows.
No comment was immediately available from the Uzbek side, which has reportedly not responded to Tajik requests for negotiations.
The two countries have long been at odds over their 1,200-kilometer border, much of which remains undefined.
The troublesome boundary is not the main source of friction, however. Dushanbe and Tashkent barely speak with one another. The Uzbeks are furious over Tajik plans to build the world’s tallest hydropower dam, Rogun, upstream, claiming it will give Tajikistan unfair control over regional water resources and could harm the environment. Tajikistan, for its part, cites Uzbekistan’s constant gas cuts as a reason it needs the giant project. The antagonism is often described as deeply personal between the two countries’ autocratic rulers.
Uzbekistan has mined much of the border since it became an international frontier in 1991 at the collapse of the Soviet Union, splitting families who once lived in the same country. Shootings are common, often of stray shepherds chasing their livestock and of smugglers who have failed to pay off the right border guards at night.