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Kyrgyzstan: 'Water Baron' Presidents Discuss Strategy At Summit

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev (right) with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, in Bishkek (official site) Tajik President Emomali Rahmon wrapped up his official visit to Kyrgyzstan today. The visit was fruitful as the leaders of Central Asia's "water baron" countries discussed increasing their cooperation and addressed the complicated issue of their common border.

September 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tajik President Emomali Rahmon seemed pleased with his state visit to neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

"The results of the visit are very good," Rahmon told RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Mirosrar Ahrorov in Bishkek. "The agreements we signed will allow increased cooperation between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan at a higher level, in areas such as travel, trade, economics, and cultural cooperation on all sides. From all sides, we want to increase our relations with Kyrgyzstan."

Rahmon arrived in Kyrgyzstan on September 18 and met with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Kurmanbek Bakiev. "Our talks confirmed the proximity and similarity of our positions on regional security, economic cooperation, water and energy policies, and the strengthening of ties between our border regions," Bakiev said.

No Oil, But Water

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the poorest of the Central Asian states. Neither country has the oil and natural gas of neighbors Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan. But both have something more important -- water. Nearly all of Central Asia's water flows out of the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan but neither country has developed the full potential of this resource.

Neither country has the oil and natural gas of neighbors Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan. But both have something more important -- water. Nearly all of Central Asia's water flows out of the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan but neither country has developed the full potential of this resource.

Bakiev said he and Rahmon agreed that their nations need to develop the hydroelectric power potential they possess. That potential could not only bring in new revenue from exporting energy but also alleviate both countries' dependence on energy supplies from their neighbors, particularly Uzbekistan.

It has also been theoretically possible for either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan to reduce or cut water supplies to neighbors as a bargaining chip in negotiations, though neither country has ever done so. However, both the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments have complained that they bear nearly the entire burden of maintaining waterways that feed all of Central Asia, and would like to see their neighbors contribute funds for the upkeep of those waterways.

'Communication Deadlock'

Trade was another topic on the presidents' agenda in Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are in unfavorable geographic locations, thousands of kilometers from any ocean or sea, and with high mountains in the east that effectively limit trade with neighboring China.

Rahmon said he and Bakiev agreed their countries must break out of this "communication deadlock."

"Our countries need to develop, and the living standards of our peoples need to be better," Rahmon said. "Therefore, the road to the Saritosh highway, which will be built in the two next years with $150 million of foreign investment, will allow us to connect Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and other countries via Tajikistan to the warm waters of South Asia. On other hand, it will allow India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran to use this road for trade and cooperation."

Border Dilemmas

Talks on defining their common border yielded little progress.

Salamat Alamanov, the head of the Regional Problems Department in the Kyrgyz government, indicated ahead of the Bakiev-Rahmon meeting that much work remains to be done more than 16 years after the two countries became independent.

"According to our research, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have 970 kilometers of common border," he said. "Since 2002, [the Kyrgyz-Tajik intergovernmental commissions] have defined 490 kilometers of the border. The rest of the disputed strips of the border are still under negotiation."

Most of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border runs through remote mountainous regions. Both countries have caused problems trying to set up border posts along this border. Locals on both sides of this ill-defined border have -- on several occasions -- burned down or wrecked these posts over disputes that a Kyrgyz or Tajik border post was in the wrong country or that border guards in the remote area were abusing their positions by demanding bribes for locals to cross even though there is no visa restriction between the two countries.

It is also a border that Islamic militants cross often, as was the case in May 2006 when an armed group attacked a Tajik border post, killing some of the guards, then fled into Kyrgyz territory. A better definition of the border is therefore important for coordinating security operations in the area.

Rights Of The Resettled

Bakiev spoke about one important achievement reached during Rahmon's visit.

"The signed document on regulating resettlement and protecting the rights of resettled people is a key factor in implementing a common state policy to provide assistance to ethnic Kyrgyz people in Tajikistan and ethnic Tajiks in Kyrgyzstan," he said.

This agreement benefits Tajiks in Kyrgyzstan and the some 65,000 ethnic Kyrgyz still in Tajikistan. During Tajikistan's 1992-1997 civil war, thousands of Tajik citizens fled to Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government did what it could for these refugees, who officially numbered more than 40,000 in the mid-1990s. Many chose to stay after the Tajik civil war ended, many of them illegally.

Several thousand have since returned back to their homeland with the help of the UNHCR. Thousands of the former refugees will become Kyrgyz citizens now with the easing of the bureaucratic rules signed today by the two presidents.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Tajik services contributed to this report.)

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RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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