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Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov (left) is greeted by Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov at Manas airport in Bishkek on August 16.

Uzbekistan’s prime minister, Abdulla Aripov, arrived in the Kyrgyz capital on August 16, leading a delegation attending a session of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation.

That might not sound like much, but considering the poor state of Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations during the last couple of decades, the first meeting of this intergovernmental commission since December 2009 should be seen as a positive development.

And it’s not the only sign of better ties between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Since Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power in Uzbekistan in September 2016 after the death of longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has been a clear departure from the 25 years of Karimov’s rule.

Probably nowhere is that more evident than in Uzbekistan’s new ties with Kyrgyzstan.

One year ago, in August 2016, troops from Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry seized a television relay station on Ungar-Too Mountain, in Kyrgyzstan, beginning a standoff that lasted several weeks.

A similar standoff had already occurred in the same place in March 2016.

The major cause of those tensions was the dispute over where the border between the two countries lies, an issue that has plagued Kyrgyz-Uzbek ties since the two countries became independent after the U.S.S.R. collapsed in late 1991.

So it is another good sign that a second commission -- the intergovernmental commission on the delimitation and demarcation of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border -- will also be meeting in Bishkek.

Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Jenish Razakov will be leading his country’s delegation in those talks. Razakov said it would mark the first time that commission had met since 2006.

Kyrgyz-Uzbek border talks started barely a week after Mirziyoev was formally named Uzbekistan’s acting president.

It's not just that the 1,378-kilometer Kyrgyz-Uzbek border is poorly marked, it's more that there never were any borders there until Soviet mapmakers penciled them in.

There have been at least nine rounds of border demarcation talks since the September 2016 meeting. There have also been visits by officials from border cities and towns.

Aitmamat Kadyrov, the mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s second city, Osh, crossed the border to meet in Andijon, Uzbekistan, with that city’s mayor, Dilmurat Rakhmatullaev, on August 10. Officials and business delegations from those two cities had already exchanged visits starting last September.

It is an interesting choice of venues.

Andijon and Osh are big cities that are close to one another -- some 50 kilometers. But the two cities also have the unfortunate distinctions of being the scenes of the worst violence in Central Asia so far in the 21st century.

In both cases -- in Andijon in May 2005, when government troops opened fire indiscriminately on a crowd that was made up of overwhelmingly unarmed protesters, sending tens of thousands of Uzbek citizens fleeing into Kyrgyzstan; and in Osh in June 2010, when interethnic rioting broke out between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, also sending tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks to the border of Uzbekistan -- the violence hardened attitudes on both sides.

And that is added to shootings along the border that have gone on for two decades.

The big question is: What is motivating Uzbekistan’s abrupt turnaround in policy toward Kyrgyzstan?

The Kyrgyz-Uzbek border area has probably been the most dangerous border in Central Asia, though it’s worth mentioning that Uzbekistan laid mines along part of the border with Tajikistan, limiting the potential for mischief from that quarter.

Dozens of people, at least, have been killed and many more wounded along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

Kyrgyz and Uzbek border guards shoot at smugglers and rustlers, and sometimes at each other.

Angry locals have assaulted border guards from the other country and border guards have crossed uninvited into their neighbor's territory to drag back suspects.

Since the border talks restarted last September, there is a calm along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier that has not been seen since the first years of independence.

In fact, Uzbekistan’s border guards even reported last October that its troops received an ailing Kyrgyz border guard and brought the latter to an Uzbek medical facility for treatment since it was closer than any Kyrgyz medical facility.

There are other indications of warming Kyrgyz-Uzbek ties.

Representatives of the two countries have discussed increasing the number of flights between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and the number of trains, from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul mountain resort area.

The big question is: What is motivating Uzbekistan’s abrupt turnaround in policy toward Kyrgyzstan?

The easy answer would be that now Mirziyoev is Uzbekistan’s president and he wants Uzbekistan to have friendly relations with its neighbors.

But Mirziyoev was Uzbekistan’s prime minister from 2003 to 2016, the last half of Karimov’s rule as Uzbekistan’s president, when the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border was increasingly sealed and bilateral ties continually plummeted.

A better answer is that Mirziyoev is being pragmatic.

His country is in an economic bind, caused in no small part by Karimov’s “fortress Uzbekistan” policy that changed Uzbekistan from a natural regional transit country to a semi-isolationist state.

There is nothing to gain in continuing the antagonism with Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan once sold natural gas to Kyrgyzstan and Karimov’s government used that as leverage to punish Kyrgyzstan for decisions Karimov did not like, by suspending supplies.

But Gazprom bought state company Kyrgyzgaz in April 2014 and supplies Kyrgyzstan with gas, ironically from gas fields Gazprom is working in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan also often obstructed road and rail traffic to and from Kyrgyzstan, but now the long-awaited China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project seems finally to be making progress.

This will be a shorter route for Uzbekistan to export goods to China than the current route through Kazakhstan, but it involves cooperation with Kyrgyzstan.

For the people living along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, Tashkent’s motivations for improving ties are probably not important.

Being able to trade openly with partners on the other side of the border and being able to visit friends and relatives more easily are a change for the better already.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
A screengrab from a video purportedly showing young Uyghurs training somewhere in the Middle East and making threats against China. There seems to have been a crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs living in China since the film was released online.

Relations between Kazakhstan and China have been good for more than two decades now.

The two neighboring countries have what could easily be described as excellent economic ties, with trade between them totaling billions of dollars annually.

Recently, however, security concerns have crept into the Kazakh-Chinese relationship.

Chinese authorities have been waging a campaign against "separatists" in the western Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region for decades, and there have been a series of violent attacks recently in Xinjiang that authorities blame on the Uyghurs.

As the full title of the region's name suggests, the region now known as Xinjiang is the traditional homeland of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people that converted to Islam several centuries ago.

Some Uyghurs have been fighting an essentially nationalist campaign to avoid being swallowed up entirely by Han Chinese culture.

Sometime early this year, the Islamic State militant group posted a video of Uyghur fighters in Syria who made an assortment of threats against China.

It was not the first time Uyghur militants in the Middle East released a video threatening China, but on this occasion it certainly caught the attention of President Xi Jinping, who vowed on March 10 to build a "great wall of iron" to protect Xinjiang.

Chinese authorities had already imposed new regulations on the Uyghurs designed to break the Uyghurs' connection to Islam.

Except for the elderly, Uyghur men could not have beards; Uyghur women were banned from dressing in burqas; children under 18 were forbidden from attending mosque; and Chinese authorities made no provision for Ramadan, insisting that Uyghurs not fast during working hours and ordering Uyghur merchants to keep their shops open.

But those rash words of a handful of Uyghurs in Syria, caught on film and disseminated via the Internet, unleashed a fierce new crackdown on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Kazakh Diaspora

The Kazakhs are a Turkic Muslim people, and many Kazakhs live in China.

In fact, China is home to the largest Kazakh diaspora -- between 1.25 million and 1.5 million, most of whom live in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture and the Tarbaghatay (Tacheng) and Altay prefectures in the northern part of Xinjiang, bordering Kazakhstan.

The same restrictions Chinese authorities have imposed on the Uyghurs apply to the Kazakhs.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that, in early June, a popular Kazakh imam known simply as Akmet was detained in Xinjiang.

That came after a Kazakh imam named Okan was detained earlier this year, apparently for performing traditional Islamic prayers at a funeral.

Okan was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Akmet died while in police custody on the night of June 4.

Authorities said he hanged himself.

Local authorities started detaining Akmet's friends and by July RFA had reported that more than 100 of the imam's friends and classmates were in custody.

State Media Turns A Blind Eye

China has become such an important economic partner of Kazakhstan that authorities in Astana could be expected to be wary of information about Xinjiang reaching Kazakhstan's citizens.

Rumors in early 2016 that impending land reforms in Kazakhstan would give Chinese the right to purchase Kazakh land sparked the biggest protests Kazakhstan had seen in two decades.

So, China's moves against ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang have not been reported on in Kazakhstan's state media, although several small independent media outlets have carried information on it.

Long lines for visas at the Chinese consulate in Almaty suggest that Beijing is now keeping much closer tabs on Kazakhs traveling to and from Kazakhstan. (file photo)
Long lines for visas at the Chinese consulate in Almaty suggest that Beijing is now keeping much closer tabs on Kazakhs traveling to and from Kazakhstan. (file photo)

The Qazaq Times website, for example, posted an article on June 6 with the headline: "Why is Akorda [Kazakhstan's presidential palace] not interested in protecting the rights of the Chinese Kazakhs?"

The 7kun.kz website reported on a press conference some well-known Kazakh writers organized in June to call on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to help ethnic Kazakhs in China.

The Kazakh government has been able to publicly avoid the issue of the treatment of China's Kazakhs, but Astana faces a more difficult task as the problem spreads to Kazakhstan.

Shortly after independence in 1991, Kazakhstan opened its doors to ethnic Kazakhs around the world, inviting them to return to their historic homeland and take up residence.

Kazakhstan is a large country with a small population and a demographic that, right after independence, showed the majority of people living in Kazakhstan were non-Kazakhs

In an effort to correct this, Kazakh authorities have repatriated some 1 million Kazakhs from other Central Asian states, Turkey, Russia, Mongolia, and from China.

They are called "oralman."

Unexplained Detentions

Some of the oralmans from China have been telling RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyk, that they and their relatives have been encountering difficulties with Chinese authorities recently.

Raushan, who only gave her first name, is an oralman who moved from China to Kazakhstan in 2005 and received citizenship in Kazakhstan in 2008.

Her husband, Omir Bekaly, 46, is also an oralman and he went to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on March 23 on a business trip.

Bekaly attended the meetings in Urumqi then decided to go see his mother in Turfan and bring her back to Kazakhstan.

Bekaly disappeared and Raushan has not heard from him since.

Raushan was successful in contacting Bekaly's mother, who said he had been detained.

Azattyq contacted Bekaly's employers; the Akku tourist agency located in Almaty.

A representative named Fariza confirmed Bekaly was an employee, and that he had gone to China and was detained there, but there was no more information.

Raushan said she has appealed to Kazakh authorities to help find her husband in China, but so far without any success.

Another oralman, Berik, who asked not to use his last name for fear of reprisals against his relatives in China, said Chinese authorities started detaining oralmans in January.

That would be about the time IS posted the video with the Uyghur militants.

Berik recently made a trip to Xinjiang and said oralmans were often taken to "political education" centers and kept there for periods ranging from three days to several months.

Berik's and Raushan's accounts are supported by a leaked copy of a June 5 speech from Zhu Hailun, the deputy party secretary of Xinjiang.

'Propaganda Work'

Zhu said a new priority for regional officials is "dealing with the issue of Chinese nationals [...] in Kazakhstan."

Zhu also said, "We must also properly carry out propaganda work with the Chinese Kazakh population in Kazakhstan."

Azattyq has been reporting for months that now there are often problems for citizens of Kazakhstan to obtain visas to go to China, even for students who have been attending Chinese universities.

Kazakhstan's citizens, ethnic Kazakhs included, are not radicals.

However, a small number of Kazakhstan's citizens have gone to the Middle East and joined extremist groups and, generally, citizens of Kazakhstan are able to more freely practice Islam.

That seems to be enough to have convinced Chinese authorities that greater caution is warranted with the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan, especially with the Uyghurs and, now, the oralmans.

This new policy of Beijing will not help China's image in Kazakhstan.

But the Kazakh government, which does not exercise the same degree of control over the media that China's government does, will struggle to keep a lid on it. It's only a matter of time before what is happening to the ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and what is happening to Kazakhstan's oralmans, becomes common knowledge in Kazakhstan.

Galym Bokash, Ruslan Medelbek, and Nurtai Lakhanuly of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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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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