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Qishloq Ovozi

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:

Majlis Podcast: Mapping Conflict Along Ferghana Valley’s Borders
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Four of Central Asia's leaders have got such a hold on power that it is hard to predict who will succeed them. (From left to right:) Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

When 2016 started there were no national elections scheduled in any of the five Central Asian countries. By the end of January, Kazakhstan had called snap parliamentary elections and Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were planning referendums to change their constitutions and allow the current leaders to remain in power indefinitely.

To some it was another reminder that changes in leadership are coming closer in Central Asia, where two of the presidents are already well into their 70s. Speculation has been rife for many years about who might come to power next in the individual states but, in at least four of the five countries -- Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- the systems are so opaque that even guesswork is difficult.

For example, no one outside of Turkmenistan (and probably only a very few inside Turkmenistan) would have thought prior to first President Saparmurat Niyazov's death in late 2006 that Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov would have succeeded him to become Turkmenistan's second president.

This week, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis, a panel discussion, to look not at who specifically might succeed to the top posts in the Central Asian countries, but rather what path they would need to take to get there, whom they would need for allies, and what policies they would have adopt to gain legitimacy and support.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Julie Fisher Melton, author of "Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan & Argentina," joined the talk from Washington DC. Also participating from Washington was Reid Standish, a journalist with Foreign Policy and author of the recently published article After Predictable Elections, Kazakhstan's Autocrat Ponders Successor. Taking part from Bishkek was Edil Baisalov, a former presidential adviser, currently one of the leading political analysts in Kyrgyzstan. And, since the succession question in Central Asia has been one of my obsessions for quite some time, I also chimed in with a few comments of my own.

No Universal Road Map

Nearly 25 years after they became independent, the five Central Asian states are now very distinct countries, so there is no road map to the top that would apply to all. The succession process will be different in each country.

In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two largest countries in the region in terms of population, the presidents are the same people who were first secretaries of the Communist Party of their respective Soviet socialist republics when the U.S.S.R. disintegrated in late 1991. For citizens of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, who will be 76 in July, has been the only president they've known. The same is true in Uzbekistan where Islam Karimov, who turned 78 at the end of January, has been the leader since the very beginning.

Being the second president will be difficult in these countries. But to get even that far, such a person will need help.

Standish suggested, for example, that, in oil-exporter Kazakhstan, the business elites would be a desirable, possibly indispensable, ally in becoming the president. But, Standish noted, "If you look at Uzbekistan, a lot of that wealth and power is generated domestically, so… the security services will probably play a much larger role in Uzbekistan in a succession scenario [and] could even be the ones who take the reins of power."

As it stands now, the elites are almost certain to be the powerbrokers when it comes to installing the next Central Asian leaders. But this is an unwieldy basis for legitimacy in Central Asia as Melton pointed out. "I don't think… elite arrangements have anything more than a very temporary effect on legitimacy," she said, adding that, "in the long run, civil society is the hope for institutionalization from below and without institutionalization from below you'll continue to have change at the top that really leads to no change at all."

The Islam Factor

The leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan enjoy a legitimacy that derives in large part from their long tenures in power. Karimov and Nazarbaev can style themselves as "fathers of their nations," Standish said, while Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, in power since 1992, is playing on his image as the "originator of the peace," for his role in ending the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war. Such legitimacy, obviously, will not transfer to whomever comes immediately after them.

New leaders could find themselves in need of a new support base. If they choose, like the current leaders, to shun cooperation with civil society, where else could they turn?

Baisalov said the generational shift is already being felt in Kyrgyzstan and that "the new mass of [the] predominantly young population… is completely different." Baisalov explained, "Currently the most popular person in Kyrgyzstan is one of the preachers, he calls himself 'sheikh' but you cannot imagine one political or any other personality who is collecting so much of an audience… whose weekly videos are being watched by hundreds of thousands in Kyrgyzstan."

Islam has been a part of Central Asian politics for centuries. Despite the efforts of the region's distrustful presidents to mute its influence, Islam will increasingly be a factor in politics in Central Asia once again. Courting support among the faithful could help propel someone to the top position but it has always been a risky game in Central Asia, particularly for leaders who are not genuinely pious.

Russian Interests

Baisalov mentioned another key to succession in Central Asia -- the Kremlin.

"Russia will make sure that they play a role," he said. "They can deny recognition, they can try and interfere, they can try to provide some guarantees against, for example, if there is some security situation. The most important source of recognition and support and legitimacy will come from Moscow."

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the Kremlin would refrain from interfering if a leader emerged in one of the Central Asian countries who was overly pro-Western, or pro-Chinese, or pro-Islamic. Recognition of Russia's interests in Central Asia is almost a prerequisite to gaining power.

The panelists recalled the starkly different transitions of power already seen in Central Asia. Turkmenistan's transfer of power in December 2006 after the death of first President Niyazov was smooth but completely opaque.

Kyrgyzstan, in contrast, saw two revolutions (2005 and 2010) that ousted presidents and violence accompanied each. (The country is now governed as a parliamentary republic with the president serving as head of state.)

The first two presidents of Tajikistan (Rahmon Nabiev and Akbarsho Iskandarov) were both essentially driven from power in 1992 as the Tajik civil war started.

The panelists went into greater detail, reviewing the path to succession and discussing what a successor might do to stay in power.

You can listen to the full roundtable discussion below:

Majlis Roundtable: The Succession Question In Central Asia
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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.

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