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Tug-Of-War: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan Look To Finally Settle Decades-Old Border Dispute

Swapping territory? Move stranded citizens? Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are exploring all options to settle a long-standing tug-of-war over their border.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan made a major breakthrough by resolving most of the issues related to a decades-long border dispute earlier this year.

Now comes the hard part: hammering out the last and most contentious points by year's end.

Just over 200 kilometers of unresolved border stands in the way of ending a tug-of-war that stems from the divide-and-conquer rule of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Bridging the differences means tackling the biggest sticking points: five small exclaves and the complex problems associated with them that have spurred riots, detentions, shootings, and killings in recent years.

To accomplish this, the two sides are exploring unconventional solutions, including the exchange of territory or possibly moving nationals from the exclaves they have called home for centuries.

Soviet-Made Problem

The border problems were caused by the actions of Soviet officials nearly a century ago, when between 1924 and 1927 they established the twisting, haphazard borders that effectively divided the frontiers of Central Asia but often irrationally separated Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks living in the vast Ferghana Valley.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the era of no borders and free passage between the five Central Asian states as the authoritarian governments that emerged began marking the borders and tightened control of the movement of goods and people.

Tit-for-tat actions in recent years by Uzbek and Kyrgyz officials on the border often led to shootings and other violence.

After deadly bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 1999, fears of Islamic terrorists entering the country led Uzbekistan to construct a fence and ditch arrangement along much of its border with Kyrgyzstan in the Ferghana Valley.
It even laid land mines in the summer of 2000 along several parts of the border, which led to people and livestock being killed and injured.

But after decades of stalemate on border issues under Uzbek President Islam Karimov, progress came after his death last year when his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoev, and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Almazbek Atambaev, inked an agreement in October to demarcate some 85 percent of the countries' nearly 1,300-kilometer frontier.

"During the era of Karimov, the feeling was not really to resolve it, especially on the Uzbek side," explains Chinara Esengul, an independent expert on international relations based in Bishkek. "But now, [under Mirziyoev], Uzbekistan does not want isolation. The new president wants to make sure the trade and industrial potential [of the country] will be fully realized and, therefore, it needs more open borders."

The bilateral border agreement was seen as cause for celebration.

"Both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek people have been waiting for this historic day for more than 20 years," Atambaev said at the time.

With few economic or diplomatic achievements to show for his six-year term in office that ended on November 24, Atambaev appears to be trying to leave a lasting legacy by resolving Uzbekistan's border problems.

But while Mirziyoev and Atambaev managed to resolve the comparatively easy disputes along the unmarked Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, the last approximately 15 percent involves five tricky ethnic exclaves.

The Kyrgyz government’s special envoy on border issues, Kurbanbai Iskandarov, told RFE/RL that there are still 36 sectors along the border that are disputed, in the Osh, Jalal-Abad, and Batken regions -- the areas where the exclaves are located.

The exclaves of Sokh, Shohimardan, Jani-Ayil (Halmiyon), and Chon Qora/Qalacha are areas of Uzbekistan that are surrounded by Kyrgyz territory. The Uzbek citizens who live there must, in many cases, pass through Kyrgyz border posts in order to leave the exclaves.

Conflicts between border guards and locals have flared up several times in Sokh -- a 350-square-kilometer exclave that is home to more than 50,000 Uzbek citizens. These often result in border and road closings by Kyrgyz officials that lead to shortages of goods which, in turn, are often followed by riots and violence.

Riots occurred in the Sokh exclave in January 2013.
Riots occurred in the Sokh exclave in January 2013.

Within Uzbekistan is the de-facto Kyrgyz exclave of Barak, a village that only has about 75 Kyrgyz citizens living on its 230 hectares.

Barak once had several hundred residents, but a slow trickle of people has been leaving the exclave for Kyrgyzstan proper. Nurkanbek Ashyrov, the head of Barak, says there are only eight students left in its school.

Kyrgyz and Uzbek officials have said they want to swiftly finalize these remaining border issues, calling for a final resolution by the end of 2017 -- a goal that will be difficult to realize.

"Political will is what matters most, and President Mirziyoev seems to exude it at the moment. So there are reasons to expect progress," says Nick Megoran, a geographer at Newcastle University in the U.K. who has researched the Uzbek-Kyrgyz borderlands since 1995.

Trading Territory...

There are two primary ways for officials in Tashkent and Bishkek to resolve the exclave issue, says analyst Esengul.

One option would involve Uzbekistan giving the territory within its two exclaves to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for a similar amount of Kyrgyz territory somewhere along the border. Such a trade would almost certainly include Barak.

Kyrgyzstan set a precedent in ceding territory when it agreed to give tens of thousands of acres in the Khan-Tengri Mountains and the Uzbenku-Kuush Gorge to China in 1999 to resolve a border dispute with Beijing.

And small bits of land have already been swapped by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan under the deal signed by Mirziyoev and Atambaev this autumn.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (right) and Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev have managed to resolve the comparatively easy disputes along the unmarked Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. Five tricky ethnic exclaves remain.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (right) and Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev have managed to resolve the comparatively easy disputes along the unmarked Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. Five tricky ethnic exclaves remain.

"There are places that on the map are part of Uzbekistan but our people live there, and there are also places that are ours but Uzbek people live there," Mamasaly Akhmamatov, the first deputy governor of Jalal-Abad Province, said in September. "We took 476 square hectares of land and gave [Uzbekistan] 241 square hectares."

He added that 643 kilometers of his province’s border with Uzbekistan has already been demarcated, leaving only 80 kilometers remaining to be decided upon.

There have been several border adjustments and territorial exchanges between former Soviet republics since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, including when Lithuania ceded its Pagiriai enclave to Belarus in the mid-1990s after Minsk agreed to trade Vilnius a small amount of territory along the Belarusian-Lithuanian border.

But any such territorial exchange in Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan must also consider the feelings of the people living on the territory that will be traded.

"Exclaves present the same legal and technical issues as standard boundaries but are much more complicated because issues of mobility and the provision of services and utilities," says Megoran.

Several other sticky issues emerge in land swaps: Would the residents of the exchanged land agree to take the citizenship of the new country they suddenly find themselves living in?​

Ultimately, there are no intrinsically good or bad boundaries, only good or bad relations between states."
-- Nick Megoran, Newcastle University

Or would Uzbek citizens in Sokh, for example, want to move to Uzbekistan -- and would they demand compensation to do so?

"Sokh (50,000 people) and Shohimardon (some 5,000 people) are large exclaves, so population size is a complicating factor," says Megoran, who called the moving of populations a "drastic option" that would lead to the "uprooting of communities and the breaking of the historic ties to place that are so important for Central Asians."

Megoran adds that "territorial exchanges have been reasonably successful on the Arabian Peninsula, but unlike the Ferghana Valley [of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan], those [land swaps] were not densely populated or cultivated areas, so disruption was minimal."

"[An] exchange [of territory] would not be taken easily by the people living in the community [that was traded]," suggests Esengul. "They will say: ‘This is the land of our ancestors. We’ve been here for so many centuries.’"

The exclave of Shohimardan has special significance to Uzbeks because it is where famous author, poet, and scholar Hamza Hakimzade Niyazi was stoned to death in 1929.

Esengul adds that Uzbek officials "would need to convince [Uzbek citizens in a swapped territory] to move out. They would have to find some good land [in Uzbekistan] to offer them so they would move."

...And Creating Corridors

A second option would be the creation of land corridors going from the mother country to the exclaves -- and giving that land to those countries.

Such a solution would still involve trading territory, but far less than would be swapped in turning over the exclaves themselves -- and far fewer people and communities would be affected.

But forming corridors with usable roads and removing the need to pass through border crossings would also create complications.

"Creating corridors of land [to the exclaves] creates newer issues of delimitation, policing, and access through and around territories for the enclaving state," Megoran explains.

A Third Way?

Megoran suggests there is a third option, something that, ironically, hasn’t existed since the Soviet era: fully free and open borders.

It’s a solution used successfully by Belgium and the Netherlands to solve a problem created by 24 tiny exclaves along their border.

"The best example is the Baarle-Hertog enclaves in the Belgian-Dutch borderlands," he says. "Here [allowing complete] freedom of movement [for both Belgians and Dutch citizens] ensures peaceful and cooperative interactions between the two communities. So there has been no need to exchange territories or create corridors."

Such a development in Central Asia would require many changes and much stronger interstate relations.

It is no coincidence that Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations are currently at an all-time high and border issues are being resolved.

President Mirziyoev summed up the warm feelings in Bishkek in September when he said that "these borders should be turned into the borders of friendship."

Those words are in stark contrast to Kyrgyz-Kazakh ties, which have hit rock bottom in recent months and led to Kazakh officials virtually blocking their country's border with Kyrgyzstan.

"Ultimately," Megoran concludes, "there are no intrinsically good or bad boundaries, only good or bad relations between states."

Perhaps Mirziyoev already understands this concept.

During a meeting in Tashkent with new Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov on December 14, the Uzbek president seemed to speak in favor of moving toward the "third option" in the future.

"We should not have borders [with Kyrgyzstan] and we should go forward on a completely different level," he said.