Decades-Old Border Disputes Threaten Central Asian Stability

Violence erupted last week in the Uzbek controlled area of Sokh, one of three foreign enclaves located wholly within the borders of Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken province.  The clashes took place between Uzbek citizens of Sokh and Kyrgyz border guards at one of the many border posts in the jurisdictionally and ethnically confusing region.

Kyrgyz authorities say the trouble began when Sokh residents attacked Kyrgyz border guards overseeing the installation of power lines at a new checkpoint and kidnapped some 40 Kyrgyz nationals before eventually returning them two day later.  Uzbekistan’s National Security Service said in a statement that Kyrgyz border guards were at fault for allegedly firing on Uzbek citizens who were merely protesting the placement of the utility towers.

Sokh and the other enclaves in Batken – another controlled by Uzbekistan and a third administered by Tajikistan – are remnants of Soviet control.  Soviet authorities are believed to have assigned the Sokh to the former Uzbek SSR in the 1950’s because the main roads in the area connected with Uzbek territory.  However, some say Kyrgyz SSR officials lost the enclave to the Uzbek Communist Party in a card game.  Further complicating the history, most of the 60,000 residents of Sokh are ethnically neither Uzbek nor Kyrgyz, but Tajiks isolated from nearby Tajikistan.

While the two sides have never had protracted armed conflict over Sokh like Armenia and Azerbaijan have over the Nagorno-Karabakh, tensions in the border areas did begin to escalate in the late 1990s when Uzbek security officials identified elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operating within the enclave and mounting attacks against Uzbek and Kyrgyz targets. Uzbekistan increased its military presence in the enclave and mined the borders, prompting complaints from Kyrgyzstan that mines had been placed on its territory.  Citizens of both countries must endure multiple customs and border checkpoints when traveling to and from the region, not to mention the possibility of landmines.  Some attempt the more circuitous and hazardous routes around the enclave.

In early 2001, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement establishing the borders of the enclave and agreeing to seek a resolution that would connect Sokh with Uzbekistan proper in a land swap.  But the talks remain mired in a dispute over the land that Uzbekistan would cede to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for the corridor to Sokh.  Uzbek authorities have offered about 20 square kilometers along the Sokh River that Kyrgyzstan has rejected.

While the dispute languishes, Sokh and the surrounding Batken province suffer.  The multiple jurisdictions, difficulties in traveling, and ethnic tensions severely curtail economic development in the area and discourage foreign investment.  Worse, the dispute contributes to a general sense of instability in the region that harms each country’s broader population as well.  Kyrgyzstan in particular has made strides recently, establishing a Western-style parliamentary system of government and appointing a new prime minister – events which give the country its first real chance at stability in government since its independence from the Soviet Union.  Bishkek’s hard line stance on Sokh runs counter to that hope.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev may be uniquely qualified to finally settle the Sokh question.  A former mayor of the southern city of Osh, Satybaldiev rose to national prominence in the wake of ethnic clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south.  Satybaldiev was seen at the time as being able to bridge the divide between the groups, diffusing a powder keg that could have led to wider conflict between the two countries.  Kyrgyzstan would be well served if Satybaldiev were to reprise that conciliatory role in the dispute over Sokh.

The history of Sokh is reminiscent of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Just as that conflict continues to serve as a drag on those two countries’ potentially bright futures, so does the Sokh enclave hamper local and national development in Central Asia.  Tashkent and Bishkek should jointly investigate the recent unrest and seek to punish any and all troublemakers without regard to ethnicity or nationality.  More importantly, the two governments should use the incident as a catalyst to seek a lasting solution to the problem that benefits both sides equally.  Tajikistan has an offer on the table.  The ball is in Satybaldiev’s court.

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