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Qishloq Ovozi

A Kyrgyz border guard stands watch in Batken Province on the country's frontier with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

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

Gurbandurdy says his district is peaceful and credited the 150 fighters under his command for maintaining stability in Qarqeen.

Turkmenistan’s government is clarifying its policy toward its border with Afghanistan and now seems to be adopting the same tactic as neighbors Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- that is, sealing the frontier.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service -- known locally as Azatlyk -- has been in touch with people in northern Afghanistan and they speak of new activity and changes across the border.

And according to one local leader, the Turkmen government has not attempted to explain to the people on the Afghan side of the border -- many of whom are ethnic Turkmen -- what is happening on the Turkmen side of the frontier.

Ethnic Turkmen Gurbandurdy -- featured in an earlier report in "Qishloq Ovozi" -- is the leader of a civil militia, the Arbaky, in the Qarqeen district of Jowzjan Province.

Azatlyk contacted him on October 8 for an update on the situation along the border with Turkmenistan.

Gurbandurdy said that within the last week several large machines -- excavators and bulldozers -- appeared on Turkmenistan’s frontier with Jowzjan’s Khamyab district, which neighbors Qarqeen. Construction materials and wood were also brought.

Gurbandurdy said he had been in touch with friends in Khamyab who told him no one from Turkmenistan had contacted anyone in Khamyab to explain what is going on. The people in Khamyab told Gurbandurdy the machines were digging a ditch all along the border with the Khamyab district. The site where the construction material was left is located between two Turkmen border posts, but no one was sure if the purpose is to construct another border post.

Joshua Kucera of Eurasianet reported on similar activity in Faryab Province in September.

Gurbandurdy told Azatlyk that the Taliban has a significant presence in Khamyab and an Azatlyk correspondent in northern Afghanistan said people in the area speak of as many as 18 villages in Khamyab being under Taliban control.

On a related note, south of Qarqeen, in Jowzjan’s Mangajik district, there was large Taliban attack on the district center in August that reportedly involved some 100 fighters.

Gurbandurdy said his district is peaceful and credited the 150 fighters under his command for maintaining stability in Qarqeen. He said Turkmenistan was not building anything new along the border with his district, but he also pointed out that that left the Qarqeen frontier open while the border with neighboring Khamyab district was being fortified.

A source for Azatlyk in northern Afghanistan said Turkmenistan has increased its troop strength in several places along the border with Afghanistan recently and in the area where three of Turkmenistan’s border guards were killed in February the border guards have been replaced by “spetsnazi,” elite commandos.

The source added that some areas now have fences, three rows deep, blocking access from the Afghan side.

He also gave an idea of the security situation in many areas near the border with Turkmenistan. Azatlyk's source noted that during the recent Eid celebrations, local residents working for a Turkish construction company in Kabul, as well as government troops on leave, had to essentially sneak back to the area to be with their families and stay hidden while they were there.

Just a few months ago, officials from Turkmenistan seem to have been supportive of the villagers on the other side of the border, particularly Afghanistan’s ethnic Turkmen. Afghan Turkmen tribal leaders went to Kabul in April to meet with the visiting foreign minister of Turkmenistan, Rashid Meredov, and appeal for help. Meredov promised to help and not long after a delegation from Turkmenistan’s government went to some of the Afghan villages to discuss aid.

But now Turkmenistan has cut communication and is fortifying its border with Afghanistan. At the start of this year, it seemed the Turkmen government was counting on its policy of neutrality to fend off problems from Afghanistan, in the same way it did in the late 1990s when the Taliban controlled the areas neighboring Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan’s government might still be hoping an amicable deal can be reached with whoever controls Afghanistan’s Herat, Baghdis, Faryab, and Jowzjan provinces in the future, but Ashgabat is, at the least, hedging its bets this time.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Mohammad Tahir, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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.