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Uzbekistan/Kyrgyzstan: Prime Ministers Agreed On Land Swap

A meeting earlier this year between the prime ministers of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan reportedly focused on renewing Uzbek shipments of natural gas to its Kyrgyz neighbors. But a secret memorandum signed at the meeting suggests the talks were not just about natural gas, but also included a land swap as a way of helping demarcate the countries' common border. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that any exchange of territory will create controversy.

Prague, 26 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may be bracing for the latest strain in their relations. A February meeting between the two countries' prime ministers designed to resolve Uzbek shipments of natural gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan, ended publicly with a pledge to resume shipments and a promise to meet again to discuss the thorniest issue in bilateral relations -- demarcating the common border.

But a copy of a memorandum from the meeting obtained by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz-language Service suggests the talks had far less to do with gas than with territory. In the memorandum, the two countries agree to a land-for-land swap.

The document bears the signatures of Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev and Uzbek Prime Minister Utkir Sultanov and includes an article stating that Uzbekistan will receive Kyrgyz land along the Sokh River -- linking an Uzbek enclave to Uzbekistan proper -- in return for what it calls "adequate compensation." A second article proposes that the compensation could be Uzbek land which would in turn link Kyrgyzstan to its own Barak enclave.

Borders and enclaves are a chronic problem in Central Asia's Fergana Valley, which is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The valley is the most fertile agricultural land in the region, and each of the countries is jealously protective of its land.

The Uzbek Sokh enclave typifies the haphazard method used by Soviet map-makers when they demarcated the area's borders 70 years ago. Located some 40 kilometers from Uzbekistan proper, the enclave is surrounded by Kyrgyzstan's Batken Province and is mainly populated by ethnic Tajiks.

Many Uzbek and Kyrgyz officials were unaware of the prime ministers' land-swap agreement. Mamat Aibalayev, the governor of the Batken Province, said he only became cognizant of the deal when Bakiev traveled to the province a week after part of its territory was signed away.

"After the signing of the memorandum, the prime minister came himself to Batken on 5 March. He was here for two days, he looked around the place. We had not seen the document. He told us about it, that it had already been signed, and then went to [the Uzbek area of Tayan, in the Sokh enclave], which the Uzbek side proposed [to trade in return]. Batken officials never saw the memorandum."

Aibalayev said that after looking at Tayan, Bakiev had second thoughts about the deal:

"[Bakiev] went to Tayan to see the place the Uzbeks proposed. It is a mountainous area with poor land. He said we might not go through with the memorandum. Bakiev said it would be a lot of work to build a road to Tayan and it would be impossible for buses to make it even if there was a road. The prime minister said we will not keep our end of the bargain, stated in the memorandum, because that land is not as good as the land we are giving."

Aibalayev also said Uzbekistan has already leaked information about the agreement and is publishing the text to pressure Kyrgyzstan into keeping its part of the bargain.

Salamat Alamanov, the Kyrgyz government official responsible for negotiating border demarcations, said the memorandum only states "intentions" and is not a binding document. Despite a line in the published document saying the agreement would automatically come into effect at the time of signing, Alamanov said Kyrgyzstan had not yet agreed to the land swap.

Alamanov also told RFE/RL that the secrecy surrounding the deal was meant as a cautionary measure:

"Some documents adopted after negotiations are to some degree confidential. If they were published it could damage the negotiation process [with Uzbekistan] because not everyone can analyze, properly assess, and understand the negotiations."

Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are already strained. Uzbekistan is Kyrgyzstan's main supplier of natural gas and has occasionally curtailed shipments to express dissatisfaction with Kyrgyz policy. Gas supplies were cut off in 1993, when Kyrgyzstan became the first former Soviet republic in Central Asia to leave the ruble zone and introduce its own currency. Shipments were cut again in late 1998, when Kyrgyzstan became the first CIS country to gain entry into the World Trade Organization.

Some 150 spots along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border are under dispute. But Alamanov, who says most Kyrgyz citizens are not prepared to understand the intricacies of border negotiation, told RFE/RL that no final decision would be made about the Sokh territory without the approval of the Kyrgyz people.

(Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)