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Majlis Podcast: Mapping Conflict Along Ferghana Valley’s Borders

  • Bruce Pannier

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have pulled their troops back from a disputed area along their common border. There were some tense days in the region around Kyrgyzstan’s village of Ala-Buka after 40 Uzbek soldiers backed by two armored personnel carriers appeared on March 18 and established a checkpoint on a road leading to the village. Uzbek authorities did not immediately provide a reason for the troop movement. In response, Kyrgyz authorities moved an equal number of troops and vehicles to the area.

In the end, after talks between representatives of the two countries, most of the troops departed and the incident fizzled out.

Ala-Buka was not an isolated event. Incidents along the borders in the Ferghana Valley -- shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- are common. Violence has broken out on occasion along various sections of the confusing frontiers. Border guards have exchanged fire, and local communities on opposite sides of the border have fought one another.

To look at the problems in the Ferghana Valley, why these problems continue to break out, and why it is so difficult to find a solution, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis, a panel, to discuss the border situation in the Ferghana Valley.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. From Dushanbe, independent political analyst Muhibolloh Kurban participated. Kurban is also a native of the Tajik village of Chorkuh, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. From Finland, where she is currently a visiting research fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki, Madeleine Reeves, a lecturer at Manchester University, joined the talk. Reeves is also the author of Border Work: Spatial Lives Of The State In Rural Central Asia, based on her work in the Ferghana Valley. I’ve roamed the Ferghana Valley for a couple of decades, so I had something to say also.

The Ferghana Valley is a region long identified by analysts as the leading potential hot spot in Central Asia and the ill-defined and ill-suited borders are a major factor in such assessments.

Every year, people are killed along these borders. Usually it is border guards firing on alleged trespassers, but for villagers in these areas it is often unclear where the border actually is.

Kurban explained the situation along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border: “Absolutely no sign, no delimitation, no demarcation.”

In the Pamir mountains along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, there are wedges of habitable land in the narrow valleys between the steep, stony mountains. “One street, even [along] one street, on one side Kyrgyz[stan], on the other side Tajik[istan], but at the same time, on both sides of the street live both Kyrgyz and Tajik. It is very, very difficult to [demarcate] places near the border,” Kurban said.

In other places, the two populations are not so mixed, generally staying on “their” sides of the unmarked border. As Reeves explained, in such areas conflicts often start from “local political demands around access to water, access to grazing lands, access to public transport, access to markets being hampered in some way. “

The governments sharing the Ferghana Valley have often found solutions to these problems, Reeves said, by resorting to “unilateral or de facto processes of delimitation through the building of infrastructure, through the building of roads and so forth to facilitate intrastate movement, movement from one part of the state to the other, but without really resolving the larger underlying legal issues.”

It can be even more complicated than that, as Kurban explained: “Tajiks rented out to the Kyrgyz side, for 50 years, a piece of land, which is about 200 meters. The Kyrgyz side built a highway on this. It is between Kok-Tash [Kyrgyzstan] and Chorkuh. Our Kyrgyz brothers should give a piece of land to rent out to Tajiks.”

Bishkek has a different interpretation of this, but clearly there are issues here that will not be easy to solve.

Uzbekistan’s borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are usually much more clearly defined, largely because the Uzbek government has worked to fence off large sections of what Tashkent claims are its eastern borders. This includes not only fences but digging ditches and setting up additional border posts and watchtowers. During an insurgency by Islamic militants in the summer of 2000, Uzbekistan put land mines along parts of its borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan do not have the finances to keep up with Uzbekistan’s moves to secure the frontiers in the Ferghana Valley.

Kurban also mentioned there are three separate Soviet maps of Central Asia -- “in the 1920s, the second in the 1950s, the third in the 1980s” -- something that led some Kyrgyz officials recently to propose dispensing with maps and resolving the location of the border “over a cup of tea.”

But beyond the physical borders, there are other issues connected to the three countries' days as Soviet republics, as Reeves recalled: “If we look at the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, we have a really significant increase at this time in the amount of area that was under cultivation.”

She said, “To do this, what one often had was the building of infrastructure, often irrigation infrastructure --- canals, reservoirs, and so forth -- that would be used by more than one republic and that might be, for instance, constructed in the territory of Kyrgyzstan, or the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic, as it was, but paid for by the Uzbek S.S.R.” Which, Reeves noted, is “the case we see with the Kasan-Sai reservoir, which is in the territory of today’s Kyrgyzstan but was constructed from the budget of the Uzbek S.S.R.”

The Kasan-Sai reservoir is the site of the recent standoff between Uzbek and Kyrgyz troops.

The first border post I ever saw in Central Asia was in the Ferghana Valley in the autumn of 1992. I was going from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. The border post was on the Uzbek side. By the time I left in late 1993, all the interstate asphalt roads had border posts on both sides of the frontier.

Nearly 25 years after independence, long stretches of the frontiers between these three countries are not demarcated and in many places ownership is openly disputed. This has not caused a huge problem yet, but it is a constant source of enmity between the three governments and too often the people living along the borders.

The panel discussed the border issues in greater depth, reviewing individual incidents and grievances and looking back at the historical events that shaped the current situation in the Ferghana Valley and offering possible solutions to the problem.

A recording of the discussion can be heard here:

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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