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Sokh: In One Tiny Territory, A World Of Problems

A border outpost around the Uzbek exclave of Sokh
A border outpost around the Uzbek exclave of Sokh
They say good fences make good neighbors. But Central Asian residents watching a barbed-wire barricade go up between their Ferghana Valley villages may not all agree.

Kyrgyz border guards on January 17 began to install the 10-kilometer fence between Charbak, a Kyrgyz village, and Hoshyar, which is located inside Uzbekistan's Sokh exclave.

The two border villages were the scene of violent clashes earlier this month, when Sokh residents reportedly staged an attack on Kyrgyz border guards for attempting to install electricity poles in an area where the division between Kyrgyz and Uzbek territory still remains undefined.

The violence spilled into Charbak, with Sokh residents overturning cars, beating residents, and taking dozens of people hostage for up to one and a half days. All border crossings through Sokh have remained closed since the violence, a move that has left residents desperately low on food and fuel.

Deadly Clashes

Such clashes have become depressingly routine in an ethnically diverse region where poorly drawn borders, poverty, and government neglect have frayed nerves on all sides.

Ashymbek Myrzabekov, a Kyrgyz resident of Charbak, called on authorities to bring the perpetrators to account or risk a continued cycle of violence.

"Ordinary people aren't just taking to the streets on their own. There are hooligans who are calling on them to do it. People are talking about this, including the people involved in the clashes themselves," Myrzabekov said.

Sokh is just the latest conflict highlighting a rise in ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan, where Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tajiks and dozens of minority groups have lived in close quarters for centuries.

The deadly 2010 clashes centered in the Kyrgyz city of Osh left Bishkek keenly aware of the potential for unrest in its restive south.

But in Sokh, the issue is as much about borders as it is about nationalities. The exclave, covering 350 square kilometers, is located entirely within Kyrgyzstan's Batken Oblast, some 20 kilometers from the border with Uzbekistan proper.

Its residents are Uzbek citizens but are, almost exclusively, ethnic Tajiks who settled in the region centuries ago, drawn by the region's rich pastureland and proximity to the Sokh River.

In 1924, Soviet planners briefly designated Tajik territories an autonomous region within the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.

Five years later, Tajikistan was made a separate republic, but many of its key populations remained in Uzbekistan. Dozens of ethnic exclaves are still scattered throughout the Ferghana Valley -- with many, like Sokh, the subject of ongoing border disputes.

Salamat Alamanov, the former head of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek intergovernmental commission on state borders, says Sokh has been a subject of debate ever since Soviet planners first divvied up Ferghana Valley in a whirlpool-like design that leaves three different countries, and a host of nationalities, competing for resources across the large, arid region.

"These borders were discussed up until the collapse of the U.S.S.R., and now these discussions about how the border is divided are continuing. Because that original process from 1924-27 wasn't carried out very well, in a way that reflected the needs of all the ethnic groups living in Central Asia," Alamanov said.

Sokh in recent decades has become the site of increasing hostilities, fueled by population growth and heightened competition for pastureland and water in an almost exclusively agricultural region.

It is also the crossing-point for cars traveling from Osh to the southern city of Batken, an engineering reality that forces thousands of Kyrgyz to stop for unwelcome inspections at Uzbek checkpoints inside Sokh.

Border Issues

In a tit-for-tat move, Kyrgyzstan established its own border point outside the exclave in December, infuriating Sokh residents.

Observers complain that even as independent countries, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have been no more successful at resolving border issues than academic Soviet planners decades earlier.

Even with desperation growing within Sokh more than a week after the violence, political leaders have shown little progress in resolving the issue.

Kyrgyz authorities -- led by Interior Minister Shamil Atakhanov and Batken Governor Janysh Razakov -- demanded full compensation for property damage before lifting the blockade around Sokh and have threatened additional conditions.

Shukhrat Ganiev, the newly appointed governor of Uzbekistan's Ferghana Oblast, quickly initiated compensation payments. But rather than dipping into national funds, the money was collected from Sokh residents themselves -- a strategy certain to breed greater resentment among Tajiks who see Tashkent doing little to protect their rights as Uzbek citizens in their dispute with Kyrgyzstan.

In Tajikistan, as well, officials have largely steered clear of any involvement in the Sokh dispute. On January 18, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohon Zarifi weighed in, saying he had asked Russia for historical documents on regional borders to help avert future problems. (A neighboring exclave in Kyrgyzstan, Vorukh, is also populated by Tajiks but, unlike Sokh, falls under Tajik jurisdiction. As does the small Tajik exclave settlement of Western Qalacha, which is also within Kyrgyzstan.)

"Even deciding whether a single square meter of land belongs to you or me is not a simple question," said Qohir Rasulzoda, the head of Tajikistan's Sughd portion of Ferghana.

In the meantime, there's no easy answer for Sokh residents like Mansur, who's watched supplies of gasoline, flour, and medicine dwindle down to nothing in his village of Chashma. Mansur says the land first settled by Tajiks centuries ago no longer feels like home.

"I hope God gives the Kyrgyz people and leaders the conscience to reopen the road. But the situation is serious and a lot of people are beginning to feel like it's better to go find an apartment in Ferghana than to stay here. They feel like there's no future in Sokh," Mansur said.

Torokul Doorov and Jengish Aidarov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Mirzo Salimov and Masum Muhammadrajab of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.