Early this year, we reported on clashes between Kyrgyz border guards and Uzbek citizens in Uzbekistan’s Sokh enclave located inside Batken Province in southwestern Kyrgyzstan. In January, the two sides brawled over the installation of utility towers for one of the many border checkpoints that dot the landscape in the jurisdictionally-complicated area. Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities issued statements each condemning the other’s citizens for starting the trouble.
The Sokh enclave is one of three foreign-controlled territories located wholly within the Batken, all of which serve to hamper development in the economically troubled province, as well as contribute to the general instability of the wider Central Asian region. The volatile mix is complicated further once one considers that most of the residents of the enclave are ethnic Tajiks cut off from nearby Tajikistan.
Negotiations between the two countries over a potential land swap to make Sokh contiguous with Uzbekistan have stumbled along since 2001, when Tashkent and Bishkek signed an agreement establishing the borders of the enclave and pledging to find a permanent solution to the dispute. Uzbekistan has sought to exercise greater control over the region since the late 1990s when it identified elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan using the enclave as a base of operations for attacks against Uzbek and Kyrgyz targets. Uzbekistan had offered to cede some 20 square kilometers along the Sokh River to Bishkek in exchange for a corridor connecting its territory proper to the enclave. Kyrgyzstan rejected the plan.
Late last month, however, two days of new talks between the sides were held in Tashkent. The deputy prime ministers for both countries attended, the highest-level officials to discuss the issue to date. We advocated for high-level talks between Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities to settle the question after the Sokh incident, and are encouraged that the two sides appear to be using the recent unrest as a catalyst to jump-start serious negotiations. While they are at it, the two sides should consider extending an invite to Tajikistan, which controls one of the three enclaves in the Batken, building on the momentum of these new talks to perhaps reach a wider settlement on all outstanding border issues.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev knows how to settle disputes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. He knows well the history between the two groups from his time as mayor of the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh. He should also know that simmering ethnic tensions have the potential to hold back progress Kyrgyzstan has made in recent months to establish a more representative democratic government, and to threaten the international investment needed for development of the country’s mineral wealth. Tashkent has made an offer to settle the Sokh question once and for all. Satybaldiev’s government needs to reciprocate in good faith. We take the recent talks as a sign that it intends to do so.
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