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Jan 23, 2013 | 15:04 GMT

Russia's Position in the Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border Dispute

Russia's Position in the Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border Dispute
MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan increased again when three Uzbek citizens were taken hostage in Kyrgyzstan's Batken province on Jan. 21. The incident is an apparent reprisal for the taking of Kyrgyz hostages on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 in the Uzbek enclave of Sox in the Batken province. Kyrgyz officials closed the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border following the first kidnapping.

Talks have stalled between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan on reopening the border, indicating that this could remain a prolonged source of tension and potential conflict between the two countries. A key player to watch in this conflict is Russia, which has an interest in keeping these countries divided, although these tensions could erupt into a conflict involving greater violence and possible military action.

The latest round of tensions between the two countries began the afternoon of Jan. 5, when Kyrgyz border guards were overseeing the installation of power lines to a newly constructed border post near the village of Charbak near Sox. Uzbek residents of the village of Hoshyar in the Sox enclave reportedly attacked the border guards and then took several hostages, who were later released. The incident prompted the closure of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, which has blocked the movement of people and goods between the major southern Kyrgyz cities of Batken and Osh.

A state of emergency was declared Jan. 14 in five villages around Sox whose access to basic resources has been blocked by the border closure. Talks on reopening the border have been unsuccessful, and villagers reportedly are building an alternate road around the Sox enclave. Moreover, on Jan. 17, Kyrgyz Interior Minister Shamil Atakhanov said that barracks would be constructed for law enforcement officers in the region of Batken and that Kyrgyzstan would increase border security and give border units special equipment as a result of the border dispute.

Map - Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border

The underlying reason for this conflict, and the others that occur regularly between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (as well as Tajikistan), is the borders between these countries in the Fergana Valley area. The borders ignore the ethnic composition of the region and are poorly demarcated, leaving substantial numbers of Uzbeks on the Kyrgyz side of the border, both within Kyrgyzstan proper and in the enclaves that belong to Uzbekistan but are surrounded by Kyrgyz territory. This has fueled nationalistic tendencies in the different ethnic groups and has frequently led to tensions between these groups.

Josef Stalin created these borders in the early days of the Soviet Union with the goal of creating tensions between the ethnic groups in order to prevent a united power from emerging in Central Asia to challenge Moscow's rule. As long as the borders remain in their current state of contestation and poor demarcation, future conflicts can be expected — something that was made clear when Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi requested historical documents from Russia related to border delineation in order to "prevent problems like those experienced in Uzbekistan's Sox district."

While these borders certainly have prevented a consolidated Central Asian power from emerging, in the contemporary era they have created hostilities in the border areas that threaten the stability of the entire region. Local and minor incidents occur almost daily, and the ethnic tensions in the border area have erupted into large-scale violence twice — shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and in June 2010, when hundreds of Uzbeks were killed in the regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad. The latter almost precipitated an Uzbek military intervention, which certainly would have drawn Russia into the conflict, given its military presence and interests in Kyrgyzstan. The possibility of Russia's involvement is most likely the reason that Tashkent ceased its military plans. This would have made for a potentially messy conflict, given the harsh terrain and complex ethnic distribution in the region, but Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan avoided military hostilities and reached a diplomatic resolution via the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization

Russia has so far been very quiet on these latest tensions because they have remained localized. However, a prolonged border closure and the possibility of a security buildup creates an atmosphere in which violence between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan could escalate and involve security forces from both sides (particularly since Uzbekistan has left the Collective Security Treaty Organization).

Moscow faces a dilemma. Letting the conflict simmer could lead to violence comparable to that in June 2010 or worse, while mediating the conflict and creating a more positive border situation goes against Russia's interest of keeping these countries divided (and would be a complex task, given the geography and ethnic makeup of the area). Moscow therefore will walk a fine line on the issue, but the fundamental aspects that created the tensions in the first place are bound to endure and continue to hold the risk of a local conflict turning into a military confrontation.

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