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Expert: Opening of borders with Kyrgyzstan poses new threats to Uzbekistan

Almazbek Atambayev has paid his last visit to neighboring Uzbekistan as president. He arrived in Tashkent after ratifying the treaty on the state border. Today, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev too has ratified the treaty. At their meeting, the two leaders discussed some regional projects, trade-and -economic cooperation, and the border-related issues, as 15% of the interstate border remains disputable. This is the most problematic section of the border connected with enclaves (for the one country) and exclaves (for the other). The issue appears to be unresolvable so far. The only option of territorial exchange reflects the two countries’ despair and does not seem realistic to most experts.

Bakhtiyer Ergashev, deputy director for Central Asian geo-culture and geo-economics, Center for Traditional Cultures, answers to EADaily’s questions in a brief interview.

What do you anticipate from these talks?

This problem cannot be settled on the spur of the moment. The sides have realized that. They cannot end with the problems of enclaves and common territories easily. At first, they will finish the work on 85% of the border i.e. the areas they have no disputes about. The rest will be discussed later. That’s a good start that the sides stopped “rushing about” those 15%. They have comprehended that the issue cannot be settled at once. So far, Tashkent and Bishkek have agreed to facilitate the entry-exit procedures, conditions for the stay for the two countries’ population.

Kyrgyzstan has made quite “exotic offers” – to exchange territories. How realistic is that option?

Speaking of enclaves, Kyrgyzstan has no big enclaves on the territory of Uzbekistan, while there are large Uzbek enclaves such as Sokh (74,000 people) and Shakhimardan (over 5,000 people) in its territory. Kyrgyzstan has one enclave in the territory of Uzbekistan, Barak, comprising only one community. How to exchange them? It is impossible. This is about the land, but there are other issues too. After all, it is necessary to find out whether the residents of Sokh and Shakhimardan would agree to become citizens of Kyrgyzstan, in case of a territorial exchange. I think the territorial exchange is a wrong idea that will have adverse social impact on the entire area of the Fergana Valley.

Territories can be exchanged, if these are pastures or even not large, up to 100ha, agricultural lands, in order to adjust the borderline, create better livelihood for the near border communities. There are many precedents of such territorial exchanges. This was normal practice in delimitation process for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. However, the situation of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is different, as threats emerge from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A definition is used applicable to these countries in the region: “threats transit corridor for the region’s countries.” Unfortunately, these two countries have become a source of certain security problems for their neighbors.

Do you link this with facilitated procedures of crossing the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border?

This is an extra threat. Political instability and constant political disturbances – I still avoid calling the events of 2005 and 2010 in Kyrgyzstan as revolutions, it were state coups - have resulted in a situation that the Government fails to control separate political figures and poorly controls the peripheries. The state ideology was sacrificed to democratic experiments. The Kyrgyz government have just started properly realizing the threat of public radicalization. A full-fledged country relies on a set of ideas suggested to the people and by the people. I am afraid, it is already late, since radical Islamic ideas have reached grassroots and become a serious factor influencing both the government and the people.

In fact, some regions are controlled by the heads of religious communities that dictate their rules and lifestyle to the local self-government officials. The situation is quite different in Uzbekistan. Penetration of radical ideas and their propagators was a serious problem. It is one of the key reasons why the border in Uzbekistan was closed tightly. Now, Tashkent has decided to liberalize the border regime with Kyrgyzstan. Meantime, the threats are still there.

They have already approved the liberal border regime, haven’t they?

I guess the issue is still being discussed. Everyone knows that a significant part of the mercenaries fighting in Syria and Iraq were from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Statistics shows that mercenaries avoid returning to Uzbekistan for the fear of punishment. They settle in the south of Kyrgyzstan and create big problems for the local government, since, as I have already mentioned, some regions of Kyrgyzstan are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists. Anyway, opening of the border should not facilitated access to Uzbekistan for radical Islamist interlopers.

According to press releases, “presidents of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan discussed regional projects, issues of economic cooperation.” What have they discussed in fact?

Probably, they discussed Uzbekistan’s involvement in the construction of an HPP in Kyrgyzstan. President of Uzbekistan declared determination to “get actively involved in the construction of HPP, including financially.” So far nothing particular have been announced about the participation terms, financial conditions, technical or legal issues. They addressed the long-discussed issue of building railways from China. It is a more practical project. The Trans-Caucasian Corridor is almost finished. Turkmenistan is preparing its capacities, particularly, the ports. Bridges over the Amu Darya River have been built. It remains to finish the last junction – China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan. Technical disputes with China over the gauge width are being settled currently. It appears that they will finally chose the Russian (Soviet) standard of the gauge width. Russia will have no serious objections, since it opposed the project mostly because of the gauge width. Now, there will be one less negative factor in the project. The sides have just to agree on the route with Bishkek.

The presidents addressed bilateral cooperation issues as well. What can Tashkent and Bishkek offer each other?

Uzbekistan imports electric power from Kyrgyzstan – supplies were resumed in the summer of 2017. As to the Kyrgyz export, it is a not large volume of limited-line products. There may be much more commodity flows from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan. Much depends on demand and specific arrangements.

EADaily’s Central Asian Bureau

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