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Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan: Analysis From Washington -- Undermining Chances For Cooperation

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 16 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan has appealed to the international community to put pressure on Uzbekistan to remove mines it says Tashkent has placed along their common border.

The Kyrgyz appeal serves as yet another reminder of the ways in which such weapons can undermine the chances for international cooperation, even against a common foe.

Kyrgyz parliamentarians and other officials met in the capital Bishkek on Monday to address a situation that may make it impossible for the countries of Central Asia to counter an expected influx of Islamist political groups later this summer. Kyrgyzstan has asked the Uzbek authorities -- but they have refused -- to mark or supply a map of the minefields along the border between the two countries.

Kyrgyz officials said that mines in the area have gone off at least 10 times, killing a number of people, leaving more injured, and doing an estimated $900 million in damage over the last eight months alone. And because of Uzbek intransigence, officials at the Monday meeting asked the international community to intervene on Kyrgyzstan's behalf at the Uzbek capital.

Uzbek officials have justified their placement of the mines in terms of national defense. They note that the anti-government Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has routinely sent its fighters from Tajikistan and Afghanistan via Kyrgyzstan and has succeeded in penetrating Uzbek borders. They point out that Kyrgyzstan's inability to prevent this movement from happening has forced Uzbekistan to lay the mines.

On the one hand, Kyrgyzstan is likely to be able to count on a significant international response to its appeal. Many countries around the world have signed the international convention against land mines and likely will see the Bishkek call as an opportunity to demonstrate again their opposition to this kind of weaponry.

But on the other hand, Uzbekistan is likely to draw support not only from its own population but from two major powers: the Russian Federation and the United States. Moscow has expressed increasing concern in recent months about an Islamist threat to Central Asia and has even used this as the basis for recovering some of its influence in the region.

Russian security officials have visited Tashkent repeatedly over the last two months to underscore their support for Uzbekistan's efforts to defend itself and its region against militant Islamic challenges. And consequently, Moscow is unlikely -- especially in the current environment -- to want to put pressure on Uzbekistan to reduce its defenses against such challenges.

At the same time, the United States also appears unlikely to put pressure on Uzbekistan to remove this minefield. The U.S. has not signed the convention against landmines because it argues that it must continue to use mines along the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas. Moreover, Washington has extended significant security assistance to Uzbekistan in a bid to increase its influence there.

Given this constellation of forces, the Kyrgyz appeal this week could set the stage for a far larger political contest than the scant initial reports have suggested. This struggle between the two Central Asian countries over a single minefield could exacerbate public debate in Europe, the United States, and even Russia -- not only over the continuing utility of landmines but also on the nature of the Islamist militant threat in Central Asia and the best way to counter it.

Debates concerning both have already broken out and have become especially charged. The view that the Islamist threat in Central Asia is a homegrown one, produced by the policies of the authoritarian regimes there rather than exported from Afghanistan, is gaining ground in both Russia and the West.

And that perspective makes the existence of the Uzbek minefield less acceptable than might otherwise be the case. But however the discussions work out, the existence of that field already has had one serious consequence: It has, in the words of those attending the Bishkek meeting this week, sowed "mistrust between the peoples of the neighboring republics and undermine[d] the ties of friendship and cooperation between them."