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Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Bound By More Than Geography

  • Bruce Pannier --> Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev is wrapping up a two-day visit to Tajikistan today. While a number of bilateral agreements have been signed, Akaev's visit has also succeeded in reminding observers that these two Central Asian nations share many geographical, historical, and political similarities.

Prague, 27 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Visiting Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev is officially opening the Days of Kyrgyz Culture celebrations in Tajikistan today, while Akaev and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov signed an agreement on partnership and friendly relations yesterday.

Cultural and political agreements between these two nations mean more than most. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are alike in many ways, and their histories have been strongly linked for years.

Akaev spoke yesterday of the bonds between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and their support for one another in international organizations. "We support one another in the international arena, in the UN, in the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], in the [Commonwealth of Independent States], in the Eurasian Economic Community, in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- and that is the way it should be," he said. "Small countries should show solidarity."

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the smallest of the five Central Asian states, and their combined populations represent only about 20 percent of the total population of Central Asia. More than 90 percent of the territory of both countries is mountainous, making agricultural land all the more precious. Neither has much industry, and unlike their Central Asian neighbors -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- they do not possess vast natural resources, such as oil and natural gas.

In times of crisis, the citizens of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have often found safe haven in each other's countries. During the riots around the Kyrgyz city of Osh in 1990, citizens of southern Kyrgyzstan found refuge in Tajikistan. The reverse was certainly true during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war. Tens of thousands of Tajiks fled through the mountains and descended into Kyrgyzstan's section of the Ferghana Valley.
Both nations often find themselves at the mercy of their neighbor to the west, Uzbekistan, which supplies much of the natural gas used by both nations.

Both nations have been affected by war and conflict in Afghanistan, which shares a 1,200-kilometer border with Tajikistan. Rakhmonov noted this in his speech yesterday. "As the closest neighbors of Afghanistan, we felt the pressure, and we were concerned for the peace and stability of our region," he said.

Both also often find themselves at the mercy of their neighbor to the west, Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan supplies much of the natural gas used by both nations. Citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have more than once suffered through winter fuel shortages because of their governments' policy differences with Uzbekistan.

Both the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments also have complained that Uzbekistan seems to be moving its border markers into their territories. And, although ethnic Tajiks make up the majority of the population in Tajikistan and ethnic Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, the next-largest ethnic group in both countries is Uzbek.

Akaev and Rakhmonov discussed less pleasant matters during their talks. The Kyrgyz-Tajik border is often ill-defined, and compounding the problem are enclaves of ethnic Tajiks in southern Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan's attempts to set up border posts around these enclaves have met with violent resistance in the last two years and have divided the Kyrgyz and Tajik communities living in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Tajik Deputy Foreign Minister Salahuddin Nasriddinov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that efforts are under way to solve this problem. "The border problems, I should say, are mostly technical," he said. "Experts of both countries now are studying historical documents and very soon will start the practical job of delimitation."

To their advantage, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan control most of the water in Central Asia, a significant matter in an area that is largely rural and based on agriculture. The other three Central Asian states have gradually realized that their "poor" neighbors are going to play an increasingly important role as regional populations grow.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Ismail Rahmatov, who works in the Institute for Strategic Research in the Tajik president's office, commented on this issue. "Since they both are in difficult economic situations and need investments, they could cooperate on water issues and -- putting joint pressure on neighboring countries who are using these resources -- they could manage to regulate the usage of water in the region," Rahmatov said.

Both countries are allowing troops tied to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to use some of their bases while simultaneously hosting Russian bases on their territories. This has helped with security and provided added leverage in dealing with neighboring states.

Hojimuhammad Umarov, a Tajik economist, noted that there is room for even further cooperation between the two countries. "Both sides have good opportunities to increase cooperation in certain areas, like metallurgy, mechanical engineering, machine building for small hydroelectric stations," he said. "And not only the two sides, but with the participation of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and China [too]."