The Fergana valley, divided between three countries—Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—is home to over 10.5 million people. International aid agencies calculate that up to 60 percent of the combined populations of all three countries are poor; living on or below $500 per year. The population is also highly diverse with significant communities of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Russians, as well as numerous smaller groups.
Since independence, there has been considerable international concern that the region could become a centre for major conflict. In the final years of the Soviet Union ethnic violence broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan, and tens of thousands of Meskhetians fled Uzbekistan. Over the last decade violent Islamist movements and powerful narco-criminal groups have emerged in the region, often using Afghanistan as a base for their activities. In the mid-1990s, a civil war in Tajikistan led to the death of over 50,000 persons. Many analysts point to the weakness of the region’s states as a source of instability. The issue of borders in the Fergana Valley thus needs to be understood within the context of an interrelated and complex set of factors that together have the potential for promoting significant regional instability.
Since the early 1990s, dozens of persons have been killed by mines in the Fergana Valley’s border areas. Significant sections of the border between the three countries remain undemarcated, causing confusion and creating tensions. Elsewhere, agreement on borders has been the prelude to the introduction of tight border restrictions.
Building Borders in the Fergana Valley
The roots of contemporary border challenges lie in the incorporation of the Fergana Valley into the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century. This began a process of remaking the region’s political, economic and social space. The porous and fluid borders of the Russian conquest were steadily replaced by a new set of administrative divisions defined by the colonial regime.
During the early Soviet period, this process was greatly accelerated with the launch of a comprehensive delimitation of the Fergana Valley—as part of the broader process under way across Soviet Central Asia and, indeed, the USSR. The foundations for the Soviet administrative system in the region became the three Union Republics—the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik Soviet Socialist Republics—putatively created on the basis of ‘titular’ nations. A boundary commission that operated from 1924-27, and then continued to work from the mid-1950s until the end of the Soviet Union, established the republican borders.
In fact, ethnic and national identities in the region were only weakly developed at that time and had to be reinforced by nearly 70 years of Soviet nation-building programmes. Just as important was the reality of complex ethnic mixing, economic interdependence, and social networks that straddled the newly created republican boundaries. The Soviet-era division of the region thus often ran contrary to the society on the ground, established networks of commerce, and historical forms of rule.
While the administrative divisions did cause frictions during the Soviet period, these boundaries did not create a major impediment to long-established social and economic patterns. The Fergana Valley was largely open within the USSR; internal ‘borders’ had little practical significance. Indeed, the Soviet authorities continued to build regional infrastructure across republican borders and to shift territory between the three republics with little concern about possible consequences.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia almost overnight transformed administrative divisions into international borders. A notable development was the sudden creation of independent countries with large ethnic minorities, who in most cases live along borders contiguous with their proto-ethnic homeland.
Particularly important are the Uzbek minorities found in substantial communities in southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan, and outside the Fergana Valley in southern Kazakhstan and northern Turkmenistan. At the same time, nearly a million ethnic Kazakhs are citizens of Uzbekistan, as well as many millions of ethnic Tajiks (notably in Bukhara and Samarkand). There are important concentrations of ethnic Kyrgyz in the portions of the Fergana Valley belonging to Uzbekistan. This pattern has raised concerns about the possible emergence of irredentist movements across the region.
The ethnic dimension is, however, only one aspect of the challenge created by the introduction of international borders in the Fergana Valley. Despite the Soviet project to promote three distinct national republics, the historical legacy in the region continues to be one of a patchwork quilt of interdependence created by irrigation, road, energy and rail net works. In some parts, borders cut through villages and backyards. There are important land leasing agreements between governments and a series of exclaves in the region, including individual villages totally surrounded by the territory of another country.
In the early 1990s, little was done to formalize the nominally international borders, although the introduction of passport and visa requirements already began to impose a new situation on the region. As the civil war in Tajikistan escalated however, Uzbekistan initiated a series of measures to secure its border, including laying mines and militarizing the border region—and its exclaves.
In the late 1990s, states in the region began to construct stronger border regimes—in part in response to the violent incursion of Islamist militants from Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000. Along the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border fences were built, bridges destroyed and roads dug up to create a defined number of crossing points. Borders became increasingly militarized. A bilateral boundary commission was set up and began the difficult task of demarcating borders.
Border tensions an conflict
The construction of highly regulated and militarized borders is seen in the capitals as reflecting the priorities of state building, national security and combating cross-border criminal activity, notably drug smuggling. The local view has been rather different: here,borders are often seen in a negative light, as creating innumerable everyday difficulties for the populations that live along the border. Frequently voiced concerns include:
- Excessive restrictions on cross-border local trade, especially in agricultural produce.
- Corruption of the border authorities.
- The break up of family relations; many families have relatives on opposite sides of the border.
- The difficulties borders impose for travel within one country, since many roads were built crossing today’s borders—sometimes many times.
- Civil society and human rights organizations argue that the closing of borders is instrumental to political repression.
- Cross-border disputes over water and land.
- Fears over personal safety due to the militarization of borders and the loss of livestock that wander into border areas.
Regular incidents of violence reflect local frustrations over these issues. There is also a close correlation between frictions along the borders and state-to-state tensions. The friction periodically erupts into local violence among Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks—at the local level—and has led to dangerous confrontations with border officials. The most conflict-ridden border regions are those found in Batken Oblast, Kyrgyzstan; Fergana Oblast, Uzbekistan; and Sughd Oblast, Tajikistan. Here conflicts occur on a regular basis over cross-border water and land issues. But tensions are present all along the international borders in the Fergana Valley.
For example: in 2009, tensions rapidly escalated along the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border following what Uzbekistan described as violent Islamic militant attacks in late May inside the country. According to Kyrgyz media reports, the Uzbekistan authorities responded by building three-meter-wide trenches in some border areas. Kyrgyzstan’s Border Protection Service issued a formal protest on June 9. Analysts can trace Uzbek-Kyrgyz tensions back to the previous winter, when Bishkek pushed forward with plans to build the Kambarata complex of hydropower stations, thus potentially threatening to limit water supplies for Uzbekistan’s thirsty cotton sector.
The tightening of the border had an immediate effect on border communities. The Osh and Kara-Suu bazaars, two of the largest markets in the Fergana Valley, were particularly hard-hit by the closure of border checkpoints. Traders at Kara-Suu said that the continued Uzbek border closure could potentially lead to the closure of the bazaar (most of whose customers came from Uzbekistan). After the closure of borders, sales at the bazaar dropped by more than 50 percent. A number of analysts have suggested that poverty and anger against Uzbekistan over the border issue contributed to the violence that left over 400 dead and created 400,000 displaced persons in southern Kyrgyzstan in the spring of 2010. In another incident, tensions between Tashkent and Dushanbe over the proposed construction of vast new hydroelectric dams in Tajikistan fed into a tense situation on the border. On 22 March 2010, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan presented a note of protest to the Ambassador of Uzbekistan in Dushanbe complaining of interruptions in railway cargo headed for Tajikistan across the Uzbek border. Tajikistan’s Prime Minister Akil Akilov then complained to the international community about the situation on the Tajik-Uzbek border during his visit to the UN headquarters in New York and to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon during the latter ’s official visit to Tajikistan requesting help to resolve the tensions between the two countries.
Despite the creation of border commissions, over a decade later, large sections of the borders in the Fergana Valley remain to be delimited. Problems over disputed settlements are only slowly being resolved. Thus, it was only in early September 2010 that families from a disputed area along the the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border finally received land to build houses in a nearby village in Kyrgyzstan. The mostly ethnic Uzbek families left the village of Chek earlier in the summer after Uzbekistan announced it was coming under its jurisdiction, electing to live in Kyrgyzstan. In this case, it was the availability of international assistance in connection with the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 that allowed the relocation to proceed.
Border issues and regional instability
Finding ways to promote better managed and more open borders has been a priority for over a decade. Numerous regional and international efforts have been launched to address single issues or the whole complex of questions related to the region’s border regimes.
Despite these efforts, to date there has been little progress in reversing the trend toward more rigid borders. Against the background of growing violence in the region, there seems a real prospect of increased measures to further separate the populations of the Fergana valley. Such steps, however, risk further aggravating the already fragile situation and contributing to the growing instability in the region.
Despite the creation of strict border regimes in the Fergana Valley, the region’s overlapping borders are notoriously porous, portals for narcotics smugglers and—regional governments claim—Islamic insurgents. Further efforts to tighten the borders now seem inevitable given recent developments in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. Experience suggests,however, that steps to strengthen borders tend to exacerbate regional tensions and promote cycles of instability.
Neil Melvin is Director of the Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Programme, and Senior Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.