Fresh from medical treatment in Germany, Kyrgyz national security head Kamchybek Tashiev urgently flew from Bishkek to the southern Batken region on February 18 to deal with people's growing anger over the failure by officials to resolve pressing border issues.
Tashiev, chief of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (UKMK), hoped to reduce tensions along Kyrgyzstan’s long southern borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Since the border guard service was put under UKMK control in November, the problems are Tashiev’s responsibility.
Grumbling by residents along the border resulted in people from Batken and districts in Jalal-Abad Province demonstrating earlier this month in the capital for a resolution to the long-standing problem of demarcation.
Villagers living along the borders claim neighboring states are encroaching on Kyrgyz territory and want it stopped.
New Kyrgyz Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov spoke about the disputed Torkul reservoir and canal in the Kyrgyz-Tajik border area on February 8.
“Unfortunately, it seems we (Kyrgyzstan) have ceded the upper reaches of the Tokgul reservoir channel,” Maripov explained.
Maripov's comment is precisely what residents of Kyrgyzstan’s border areas do not want to hear from government officials.
In Bishkek on February 15, Gulzhigit Isakov, the leader of a group from Batken that calls itself Chek Ara (Border), criticized new populist President Sadyr Japarov.
"It is upsetting that while someone is taking over our border, Sadyr [Japarov] has not raised the issue once in any of his interviews," Isakov said.
The Kyrgyz-Tajik Border
Isakov was referring to the situation in the area around the Kyrgyz villages of Ak-Sai and Kok-Tash that over the last decade have seen many clashes between residents from both sides of the border.
And while once those clashes were limited to the two parties throwing sticks and stones at each other, they have increasingly involved gunfire and deaths.
On February 11, a group of Tajik villagers planted trees in a field by the Kyrgyz village of Chek-Dobo, which is near Kok-Tash.
The field was in an area that has not yet been demarcated.
The next day, all the trees had been dug up and were left lying on the ground. So the Tajik villagers returned to try and replant them.
But Kyrgyz border guards arrived and ordered them to stop, with harsh words exchanged. Then Tajik border guards arrived and the “border guards of the two countries took up positions."
In Bishkek, Isakov claimed “the Tajik side brought soldiers and equipment to the Ak-Sai area…because our border guards removed their post [there].”
Officials from both countries eventually arrived and negotiations cooled tempers -- for a while at least -- with each side pledging not to do any work of any kind on disputed land.
But the incident points out how sensitive the situation is and how high emotions there are, that a simple act such as planting trees nearly set off violent clashes.
The Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border
On February 14, workers from Uzbekistan’s electricity company started setting up electricity poles near the Kyrgyz villages of Suu-Bash and Boz-Adyr in Batken Province.
The village is near Uzbekistan’s Soh exclave, one of the most interesting places in the Ferghana Valley. It belongs to Uzbekistan, is surrounded by Kyrgyzstan, and is inhabited overwhelmingly by ethnic Tajiks.
Ethnic Kyrgyz residents alerted border guards to the action and, after a meeting with their Uzbek counterparts, the poles were removed.
But more problems are almost surely coming as Uzbekistan has already started building an airport at Soh -- scheduled to be completed in May -- to better connect the exclave with Uzbekistan proper.
No Kyrgyz territory is endangered by the airport, but symbolically it certainly reinforces Uzbekistan’s claim to the exclave and is a reminder to local Kyrgyz that its larger neighbor is paying attention to an area many in Kyrgyzstan believe is neglected by their government.
On the same day Tajik villagers attempted to plant trees near Chek-Dobo, Uzbek border guards accompanied by others in plainclothes began setting up border markers near the Kyrgyz village of Kosh-Bolot, in the Ala-Buka district of Jalal-Abad Province.
Kosh-Bolot residents say the Uzbeks were on Kyrgyz territory.
"The Uzbek military came close to the house of one of our residents and put their pillars there, thereby marking it as their territory. Our border guards arrived at the scene but did not say anything," one local resident said.
The Kyrgyz website Kaktus.media reported that “sources in the government” said that the area where the Uzbek border guards were setting up markers belongs to Uzbekistan under the terms of a September 2017 agreement, “but local residents, not understanding the situation, expressed their dissatisfaction.”
The Ala-Buka district has been the scene of high tension between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan before.
A reservoir is located there that is claimed by both countries: by Uzbekistan because they say they paid for its construction during the Soviet era, and by Kyrgyzstan because it is located well inside Kyrgyzstan.
Water from the reservoir has always been mainly used for fields in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek troops crossed into the area twice in 2016 and, in August of that year, occupied a nearby mountain called Ungar-Too, holding captive several Kyrgyz employees there who were operating a telecommunications relay station.
No Easy Solutions
The Kyrgyz-Tajik border is some 976 kilometers long, of which about 520 kilometers has been demarcated.
The Kyrgyz-Uzbek border is some 1,378 kilometers long, with about 1,100 kilometers of it demarcated.
Kyrgyz Special Representative for Border Issues Nazirbek Borubaev said at a February 15 press conference that "many of our citizens are making statements that ‘our land is being given to the neighbors,’ based on unconfirmed information."
But some people in Kyrgyzstan doubts this.
Tashiev said border talks with Tajik officials would take place in the first half of March and with Uzbek officials in the second part of that month.
Tashiev also said the budget for border security would be increased, and he repeated to residents of border villages in Batken Province a promise he has made several times over the years, long before he was UKMK chief, that “not one square centimeter” of Kyrgyz territory would be given to the country's neighbors.
That undoubtedly suits people in Kyrgyzstan, but it is a hard bargaining point for neighbors who are also seeking concessions.
Borubaev said that “if necessary, we can find something in the archives in Moscow.” Generally, maps drawn after Russian colonization of Central Asia have been the basis for contemporary border demarcation work for the current Central Asian states that didn't exist at the time.
Meetings of officials poring over Russian-Soviet maps to determine the borders of their countries is possibly the only way to make progress in reaching final agreements on the remaining frontiers of the five Central Asian states.
But for the people living in these areas, the issue of where the borders should be depends on where arable fields and pasturelands are located and where the water sources are.
And as long as the border talks continue, there are tracts of land in disputed areas that could be used for orchards or grazing but are left unused.
Meanwhile, many Kyrgyz residents seem to be poorly informed about the deals that have been made by previous governments about what is and what is not Kyrgyz territory.