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Uzbekistan: Analysis from Washington -- Undermining Confidence

Washington, 21 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A senior Uzbek official argues that Tashkent has every right to mine its borders to protect that country from Islamic insurgents, an argument that seems certain to further undermine efforts at promoting regional cooperation.

Makhmud Utaganov, a police major general who heads the Uzbek State Border Committee, said in an interview published in Tashkent on 19 June that "according to intelligence data gathered before the mining, the areas involved had been used as corridors for the transit of drugs, weapons, and illegal movements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan."

Utaganov added that the minefields had been placed in areas not routinely monitored by his country's border guards. And he said that the governments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan along whose borders the mines have been placed had been informed in advance.

The governments of both of these countries have been troubled by this step. Several of their citizens have died after entering unmarked minefields. And repeated requests by these two states for maps of the minefields have gone unanswered.

Moreover, human rights activists have pointed out that Uzbekistan's use of mines violates several international agreements Tashkent has signed and restricts the freedom of movement guaranteed by the Uzbek Constitution. In addition, many political analysts argue that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IUM) is not so much an insurgency from abroad as Tashkent suggests as a home-grown movement produced by the increasingly authoritarian policies of Tashkent itself.

Uzbek authorities, however, defend their decision as being within Uzbekistan's sovereign rights. Moreover, they note that the United States among other countries has declared the IUM to be a terrorist group and that Washington uses mines to defend its forces in South Korea and has steadfastly refused to sign the international agreement banning such devices.

But Uzbekistan's use of mines on its borders seems certain to reduce the chances that the countries of Central Asia will be able to cooperate, either to fight terrorism and the drug trade or on other issues. Like the borders of other countries in the region, Uzbekistan's frontiers remain extremely porous, with people regularly crossing them without much regard to border posts.

In many cases, these borders divide single villages or families, and people on both sides have long been able to move across them more or less freely for work, to visit relatives, or simply to participate in public life. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of the five post-Soviet states in the region, each of the governments has tried to make its borders more secure.

At the same time, these governments have also said that they want to cooperate with each other. Moreover, outside powers have encouraged them to allow the free flow of people and goods that various international agreements require and that are in turn a precondition for economic growth and political stability.

Both the legacy of the Soviet past when these borders were little more than lines on the map and commitments during the past decade to open frontiers have contributed to these problems. And as a result, it is no surprise that governments now want to take action to ensure that they do control their borders and hence their territories.

As each of them does so, however, the others are certain to react by seeking to impose border controls equal to those of their neighbors. And because of that likelihood -- or rather, near-certainty -- the Uzbek decision to use mines along its borders and its unyielding defense of what many view as a violation of international law and of good neighborly relations may make interregional cooperation increasingly difficult.

Consequently, the mines that the Uzbek border guards have laid along their country's borders in the name of national security appear likely to reduce not only the security of Uzbekistan but of the region as a whole.