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Uzbekistan: la geopolitica del muro?

3 luglio 2009


By Erkin Akhmadov (07/01/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On June 13 2009, the Uzbek authorities decided to strengthen security on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Specifically, they dug ditches in the Suzak, Aksy and No’okat borderline regions of Kyrgyzstan and erected walls in the Rishtan rayon of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana region. The depth of the ditches reached 3 meters and the height of the walls 5-7 meters. Moreover, the inhabitants of the borderline settlements of Uzbekistan are settled in exclaves outside the borders. The digging and construction is conducted unilaterally by the Uzbek side, manifesting its supposed urgency and utmost necessity. Several ideas of what may have caused such a harsh and abrupt policy towards neighboring Kyrgyzstan circulate in local media sources.

To start with, most of the ditches and walls on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border are located on territories still considered to be disputed, i.e. whose legal status is not decided yet. A memorandum on Kyrgyz-Uzbek border delimitation was signed in February 2001. By 2009, only three quarters (993 km out of 1375 km) of the border was delimited, leaving about 58 disputed areas. Some sources suggest that the Kyrgyz side has already protested against such actions. Thus, it is reported that some ditches were filled up by the Kyrgyz border guards.

Among the numerous speculations on the possible reasons for Uzbekistan’s switch in policy are the recent attacks in the city of Khanabad, where unknown militants attacked a border checkpoint and the National Security Service and Internal Affairs buildings. In the immediate aftermath of the incidents, Uzbek authorities claimed that the militants came from the territory of neighboring Kyrgyzstan. However, Kyrgyz authorities denied the statement and contended that there were no reasons for such accusations. Nonetheless, setting up different kinds of fenders for purposes of national security has been a common Uzbek practice. It should be recalled that in the 1990s, Uzbekistan mined its borders with Tajikistan. Then, it was done in order to prevent the intrusion of Islamic militants and other threats that may have been expected from neighboring Tajikistan. Thus, security concerns come to the fore in the recent developments on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

However, another reason for such abrupt policies is economic. Huge amounts of Chinese goods of wide public use are transferred through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. The markets where these goods are bought are located in Kyrgyzstan, in Osh and Kara-Suu. Therefore, as stated by Uzbek authorities, the fenders are designed to minimize border trade and support national commercial structures. Adjar Kurtov, an officer of the Moscow-based Russian Institute of Strategic Research, argues that “one of the primary reasons for such actions by Uzbekistan is a desire to protect itself from contraband goods in times of financial crisis.” Thus, he argues that Uzbekistan’s ditches and walls amount to nothing but protectionist policies. This version is supported by the deputy chairman of the Border Guard service of Kyrgyzstan, Kubanych Sarybaev, who stated that the ditches are dug primarily in areas where the major trade in fruit and vegetables takes place. Furthermore, beginning this month, it is allowed to bring goods from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan at significantly lowered duties (US$10 from the previous US$50).

Last but not least, one explanation for Uzbekistan’s decision to build walls and dig ditches relates to Kyrgyzstan’s intention to build the Kambar-ata hydro-electric station. Uzbekistan opposes the construction of Kambar-ata as it fears that it may affect the flow of water to lands that need irrigation. Bishkek-based political scientist Mars Saryev views the current Uzbek policy as yet another sign of disapproval of such plans, and another way of raising difficulties for the Kyrgyz in realizing their energy potential.

Each of the versions presented could suffice as an explanation for the decision of the Uzbek authorities to build barriers on their border with Kyrgyzstan. More important, however, the consequences of such actions for the broader relations between the two states are likely to have a significant negative effect. Not only do they make the lives of ordinary people living in the border areas harder, they also affect Kyrgyzstan’s economic situation. According to some estimates, Kyrgyzstan was annually earning about US$1 billion on export and re-export of goods to Uzbekistan. With the barriers built by the Uzbek side now, such income has significantly declined. Thus, the Kyrgyz side is highly interested in settling any possible problems that may have caused such its neighbor’s reaction. Uzbekistan, however, seems glad to take advantage of the current situation and show its power to the Kyrgyz. Nonetheless, no matter what short-term objectives Uzbekistan may seek to reach, it is clear that in the long run it will do little to help the already poor relations between the neighbors.

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