Sokh district, a small pocket of Uzbek territory
within Kyrgyzstan, has been the scene of low-level violence and bilateral tension since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Following an outbreak of violence
on January 5-6, RFE/RL takes a brief look at the history of this territory and some of the contentious issues it presents for Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
What is Sokh and how did it come to be?
Sokh is an exclave of Uzbekistan comprising about 350 square kilometers along the Sokh River. It is completely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan's Batken Oblast. Although the territory is disputed between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, its population of less than 60,000 people is overwhelmingly Tajik and some other nationalities.
The exclave came into being in 1955, although its origins are shrouded in legend. According to some reports, the territory was lost by a Kyrgyz Communist Party official in a card game with his Uzbek counterpart. According to others, communist officials decided it made sense to give the territory to Uzbekistan because the main roads in the region connect with Uzbekistan along the river instead of with more rugged Kyrgyz territory to the east and west.
What has happened to Sokh since the break up of the Soviet Union?
Sokh remains disputed territory and has seen periodic flashes of violence throughout the post-Soviet period. Shortly after Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, the two countries agreed to allow Uzbekistan access to the exclave via roads traversing Kyrgyz territory.
In 1999, Tashkent determined that militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were using Sokh as a base of operations against both countries. Uzbekistan significantly increased its military presence in the exclave and began mining its borders. Kyrgyzstan claims that mines have been laid in Kyrgyz territory and that Uzbek soldiers periodically terrorize local civilians on both sides of the border. Several Kyrgyz citizens have been killed by mines or gunfire while trying to cross Sokh.
In January 2001, Uzbekistan temporarily stopped providing natural gas to Kyrgyzstan, claiming that a pipeline had been damaged. Bishkek claims that Tashkent cut off the gas in order to pressure Bishkek to agree to a territory swap that would connect Sokh with the rest of Uzbekistan -- a matter of some 20 square kilometers that would be compensated by other Uzbek territory along the border.
In February 2001, the countries signed a memorandum delimiting Sokh's borders and agreeing on the "expediency" of connecting the exclave with the rest of Uzbekistan. So far, however, Bishkek has rejected the territory that Tashkent has offered in exchange for concluding this deal, and negotiations are formally continuing. When the document was publicized, many in Kyrgyzstan saw the agreement-in-principle to hand over Kyrgyz territory as a betrayal of Kyrgyz national interests.
What impact does the situation have on residents' daily lives?
At present, Sokh residents trying to travel through Kyrgyzstan to the rest of Uzbekistan must pass through numerous border and customs points run by both countries along the connecting roads. Likewise, Kyrgyz citizens trying to pass between the eastern and western parts of Kyrgyzstan through Sokh are confronted by numerous checkpoints in addition to the danger of land mines.
Such difficulties have hampered the economic development of the already poor region -- both Sokh itself and the surrounding Bakten Oblast are severely underdeveloped. Local officials have blamed the lack of a corridor to the rest of Uzbekistan for the closure of local industry, including a shoe factory and a canned-goods plant. Unemployment in the area is high, and the economy remains largely agricultural, with potatoes and rice as its main products. Many young people from the region leave to try and find work in Russia.
Sokh is symptomatic of many of the unresolved issues in the region. Leonid Bondarets, a Kyrgyz academic, has written that the fact that existing state borders do not correspond to the ethnic makeup of the region is the root of many interethnic problems and is always fraught with the danger that internal problems of one state or another could erupt into an international conflict.