Dear honorable readers, today we are up to 42 degrees, I’m suffering in the office and since I want you in прохладная Европа (cool Europe) to suffer too, I am coming to the heavy stuff. Why would you rarely read about Central Asia on the “International” News (except if some Chechen Kyrgyz guys kill three people in Boston). Might be that there is just nothing going on? Everyone lives a peaceful life in harmony in the beautiful mountains or relaxing in the steppe or trading romantic goods (and/or drugs) on the former Silk Road? I am not so sure – here a glimpse into one hot topic: borders
Although Kyrgyzstan has only 4 borders (see map), there is some quarrels going on about them.
one week ago an incident near Jalal-Abad at the border region between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan took place during which one Uzbek border guard was killed, another injured. According to the News and the largely unexcited reactions of my acquaintances (“well, it’s crazy”), this is no exception to happen, since quarrels near the border are quite common (on 20 June for example a Kyrgyz citizen was killed by Uzbek guards – circumstances unclear). As always in such cases, the explanations vary widely, depending on the different Uzbek and Kyrgyz sources. While Uzbek officials stated that the Kyrgyz guards had been drunk and invaded Uzbek territory, according to a Kyrgyz official the Kyrgyz guards had been dragged onto Uzbek territory after a verbal discussion about the border details (messy topic!) with Uzbek guards starting the shooting.
Although I am not in touch with any of this – means I don’t have first-hand information – I want to give you an impression of the ongoing disputes based on newspaper information and conversations with Bishkek inhabitants.
Like in many other post-colonial countries (although often not considered as such, in my view, Soviet rule in Central Asia was part of an extremely long colonial phase) the border constitution in Central Asia is kind of a controversial issue. Soviet border-setting in the titular nations was artificial, top-down (well, at least they tried to do the ethnicities justice by counting their numbers) and not really accurate and concrete – because of course the Soviet Empire would last forever – unifying all the beyond its flag. Okay, I’m exaggerating (it’s the heat!). Anyway, let’s see how it looks like now:
Some weeks ago, I met some foreigners who were stuck in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country that allows free access for some days for EU citizens as well as a couple of other nationalities, as a strategy to enhance tourism). They couldn’t go any further because the Kazakh embassy was closed. At first no one could tell us why it had closed down – the locals I asked were kind of surprised since Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan usually get along quite well (they are seen as fraternal nations) – but eventually we found out that it was because of a water dispute. Kyrgyz villagers had blocked the rivers flowing into Kazakhstan which prevented Kazakhs to irrigate their fields. After an official protest letter by the Kazakh government on 17 July the flow of the river was quickly restored. In general, Kazakhstan is a considered as a related friendly nation with which to stick together in a troubled environment. In spring 2013 the border demarcation process was officially completed.
I didn’t really hear about any problems with China yet, might be, that it is just another superpower and you better let the lion sleep next to you than climbing in its nose; might be, that the – apparently relatively unclear – settling of the borders during the 90s has gained wide acceptance by now.
During history, with Kyrgyz’ people organized in clans, the borders were constantly contested. I found out that the first contracts were settled in 1880 between Tsarist Russia and China but not really accepted by (back then weaker) China. During Soviet times several negotiations took place to rearrange the borders peacefully, but came to no remarkable result so that independent Kyrgyzstan inherited this border trouble. By now, although in 2001 there were protests in parliament stating unfair claims by China it seems widely accepted to me. According to Asia Times Online, China gave up large parts of its land – including one of the highest mountains in Kyrgyzstan (Khan Tengri) to keep the border calm.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in Ferghana Valley:
The most complicated, most contested borders in Central Asia can be found in the Ferghana Region, where Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan border. The region has always been important due to its relative fertility and its being part of the Silk Road. About 20% of Central Asian population lives there, although it covers only about 5% of Central Asian surface. During Soviet times the Valley was considered as one big, economically important region without concrete border settling. This is now causing a lot of confusion and political, economic and sometimes violent tensions about land, water, drug-trafficking, infrastructure and other less obvious reasons.
Most obvious are Uzbek-Kyrgyz tensions. For example in the end of the 90s Uzbekistan erected a fence along its unilaterally demarcated borders (they apparently claimed land that had only been lent to them during Soviet times) to prevent “terrorist attacks”. Best known are probably the 2010 uprisings (reported numbers of victims vary widely and depending on who I asked it was more Uzbeks or more Kyrgyz’) that are linked to the overthrow of former president Bakiev in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbeks claimed parts of Kyrgyz territory, while I spoke to Kyrgyz people stating that they are already deprived of large parts of “their land” – situated today in Uzbekistan. Additionally, there are several (9) enclaves of minorities in the South of Kyrgyzstan (see map on the right), about which there is frequent trouble, too. The actual guarded border is also causing frequent problems, shootings and quarrels with mostly unclear reasons.
Out of the overall border there is still 300 km disputed land. In 2012 a Kyrgyz official stated:
“Uzbekistan is erecting a 600-kilometer-long border fence without coordinating its border fencing activities with Kyrgyzstan. We, in response, are preparing our own border fencing project. The government has already allocated 7 million Kyrgyz som.”
In 2013 one of the Uzbek enclaves (Sokh) in Kyrgyzstan was fenced (see below).
Just some recent clashes in the region:
- January 2013 (T-K-U), Sokh – “a densely populated valley that belongs to Uzbekistan, is mostly populated by ethnic Tajiks, and is entirely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province”
- April 2013 (T-K), Tajik enclave of Vorukh
- June 2013, (K-U), Aydarken
- July 2013 (K-U), near Jalal-Abad (see above)
In sum, it’s kind of hard to tell, what is actually going on there, because there are completely different versions told in the respective countries. Like a journalist (D. Trilling-eurasianet.org) puts it:
“[T]he details get murky, lost in a flurry of accusation and counter-accusation”
So, that was the heavy stuff for today, now you can lean back, enjoy the heat and think about deconstructing the nation-state to prevent further border troubles all over the world…