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Central Asia: Border Dispute Between Uzbekistan And Kyrgyzstan Risks Triggering Conflict

  • Bruce Pannier



Prague, 8 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The borders among the Central Asian republics have long been problematic. But now they may be even more at risk if the statement of a Kyrgyz parliamentarian about Uzbek efforts to shift border markers proves to involve more than just the action of a local Uzbek official.

Dooronbek Sadyrbayev -- a deputy in Kyrgyzstan's parliament -- told his colleagues last month that Uzbek officials are shifting the borders between the two countries in Uzbekistan's favor. In some places, he said they are moving them as much as 24 kms from the position defined by agreements between the two states.

So far, no one in either Bishkek or beyond seems to have taken Sadyrbayev's remarks seriously. But there is at least some evidence to suggest that what he is saying is true. Not only have Uzbek officials routinely ignored the borders since 1991 -- crossing into Kyrgyz territory in pursuit of those they wanted to arrest -- but Tashkent even staged a military exercise inside Kyrgyzstan in 1993 without bothering to inform Kyrgyz authorities.

Moreover, visitors to the region have noted that until the mid-1990s, the border -- established by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1920s -- had few clear markers.

Sadyrbayev announced to the parliament in mid-February that he had information of Uzbek borders creeping into Kyrgyz territory.

But this week, another Kyrgyz parliamentarian, Adakham Madumarov, made a statement likely to lead some in Bishkek to pay more attention to Sadyrbayev's charges.

Madumarov denounced what he called "anti-Kyrgyz" broadcasts on Uzbek state television. He said that Tashkent television had broadcast an open attack on Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev and that the Uzbek authorities know full well that Kyrgyz in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan will get this message rather than its alternative, since they cannot easily receive Bishkek's broadcasts. And he added that many Kyrgyz there are angry about what the Uzbeks are saying. Madumarov said:

"Last Friday, I visited the Osh region and heard the opinions of voters. Their opinions are extraordinary. I can say that they are irritated. They say with displeasure that neither the Kyrgyz state leadership nor the government or the parliament have responded yet."

Clearly concerned about any deterioration in relations between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan -- there were serious riots between the two groups in 1990 that left over 200 dead -- Madumarov, who represents a region near Osh, called for a diplomatic resolution of the current tensions.

"Regardless of territory or population, Kyrgyzstan must build its relations with neighboring countries on the basis of equal rights. Constitutional rights of Kyrgyz citizens should not be violated anywhere."

In addition to these charges, several Kyrgyz officials have pointed out that Uzbekistan is receiving scarce water supplies from reservoirs along the common border. They are providing water only to Uzbek regions, thus raising the specter of new disputes. It was a dispute over water that triggered the 1990 events.

The Kyrgyz-Uzbek border is not the only one now at risk of triggering conflicts. Some in Tajikistan are making claims on Uzbekistan. One opposition figure who may become defense minister -- Mirzo Ziyoyev -- has told journalists that Samarkand and Bukhara, now inside Uzbekistan's borders, are traditionally Tajik cities, implying that they should be included within Tajikistan's borders sometime in the future.

Up to now, the Tajik government and opposition have kept this issue quiet. But relations between Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Uzbek President Islam Karimov -- who helped Rakhmonov during the Tajik civil war -- have plummeted since last November. At that time, a group of mutineers in northern Tajikistan attempted a rebellion. The Tajik president called it an attempted coup, and officials around him pointed their fingers at Uzbekistan, saying that is where the rebels entered their country. These officials further claimed Uzbekistan knew about the coming problem and hinted that some in Tashkent may even have helped.

The Uzbek president said the Russians were responsible and then dismissed the Tajik president as little more than the stooge of a criminal government. According to Karimov, the Tajik president shortly after the terrorist action in Tashkent last month had said in effect that had Karimov been killed, Uzbekistan would have fallen into the hands of Dushanbe.

Officially, there are some 1 million ethnic Tajiks in Uzbekistan and 1.5 million ethnic Uzbeks in Tajikistan, but most observers believe that the actual numbers -- especially for Tajiks in Uzbekistan -- are far higher.

For thousands of years, the peoples of Central Asia have existed side-by-side. There were conflicts, but even in Soviet times, these peoples existed in relative harmony, as their ancestors had done.

Now, when they are nominally free and independent, a feud that never really existed before is taking shape and threatens all they have. And such conflicts will affect an outside world increasingly interested in the region's immense natural resources.

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