Two Central Asian countries are taking an extreme step to strengthen security along their borders, but the move is more likely to add to tensions already present along their ill-defined common frontiers, particularly in the Ferghana Valley.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are forming something like civil militias to help border guards who are admittedly stretched beyond their limits when it comes to border security.
On October 8, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed a bill that provides for arming elements of the population living in border areas and training them to work with local border-guard units. These border-guard helpers would be used in "remote mountain areas." About 93 percent of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous.
Ideally, these recruits would be hunters. The state would provide them with uniforms and mobile-communications equipment and pay them a wage for helping border guards keep the watch.
On October 6, Uzbekistan’s government approved regulations for the Chegara Posbonlari (Border Sentinels), volunteer units to assist border-guard forces. The pro-government youth group Kamolot formed such volunteer units -- Kamolot Posbonlari -- back in 2010 to help patrol borders with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
There was no mention of arming the Chegara Posbonlari, but they, like their Kyrgyz counterparts, will receive mobile-communications equipment. The regulations do not appear to be very precise or detailed. They indicate the Chegara Posbonlari are only supposed to watch for illegal activity along the border and report it to border guards.
There is certainly reason to keep watch along the border.
Smuggling -- from cotton and gasoline to narcotics -- and livestock theft are common along all of Central Asia’s borders. The problems are particularly acute along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border owing to the dense population and abundance of land suitable for maintaining herds. Both countries are on transit routes from narcotics being trafficked out of nearby Afghanistan.
Border guards are often accused of either turning a blind eye to smuggling and rustling by their countrymen or participating in it.
None of the five Central Asian states can claim to have all of its borders demarcated. The Uzbek-Kyrgyz border might be the worst-defined frontier within Central Asia.
The combination of illegal activity and an unclear border has fueled conflicts between communities on opposite sides of the boundary. Border guards have often been needed to restore peace between Uzbek and Kyrgyz villagers, but they do naturally tend to side with their countrymen in these disputes.
There is no reason to believe the introduction of these semi-official civilians into the mix would ease, rather than stoke, these conflicts.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Ozodlik, heard from an Uzbek border guard that these Posbonlari are already exceeding their authority in some areas where they patrol. The border guard, who provided information under condition of anonymity, said members of these volunteer border forces have often demanded money to allow people to cross into Uzbekistan.
Some people are not intimidated by these volunteers with no uniforms or badges and refuse to pay what is clearly a bribe.
The sentinels then resort to Plan B: They let them across, then detain them for illegally crossing the border, threatening to call in the real border guards or police.
This type of behavior will only make the situation along the border worse.
Kyrgyz MP Nurlan Torobekov (Ar-Namys Party) asked during debates in September who would take responsibility for the possible misdeeds of one or more of these hired guards.
Tajikistan has not announced any plans to follow Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan’s example. But the situation along Tajikistan’s borders with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is similar to the situation along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. If both the latter countries implement their plans to augment border forces with civilian groups, Tajikistan will almost surely do the same.
Border guards -- Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek -- exchange fire across the borders of the Ferghana Valley every year. People are often wounded and sometimes killed. Adding civil-defense units is likely to bring more casualties and further escalate tensions.
-- Bruce Pannier, with Ulan Eshmatov and Eleanora Beysehnbek kyzy of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Alisher Sidikov of the Uzbek Service, and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service