BACKGROUND: Several so-called enclaves – lands belonging to one country but surrounded by the territory of another neighboring country – exist between the three Central Asian states Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These are the Uzbek enclaves Sokh, Shakhimardan, Jangail and Chon-Gara in Kyrgyzstan; the Tajik enclaves Vorukh and Kapaygach in Kyrgyzstan and Sarvak in Uzbekistan; and the Kyrgyz enclave Barak in Uzbekistan. This unusual distribution of lands is a legacy of the Soviet cartography with its “divide and rule” policy, as well as the unique geographical structure of the Fergana Valley.
Throughout the period of independence, the existence of these enclaves has played a dual function. They have been symbols of unity and indivisibility of people residing in and around the enclaves; and at the same time functioned as instruments of micro-geopolitical games between Central Asian states in order to exert influence and pressure on each other.
The Sokh enclave has been subject to such controversy. The distance between Sokh and the nearest town in Uzbekistan’s mainland, Rishtan, is about 20 kilometers. However, the Kyrgyz side has blocked this short road for many years and residents of the enclave had to bypass it through another 80 kilometer-long road to get to Rishtan.
In May 2020, a small incident occurred in Sokh between the local Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities over the small spring Chashma. Border incidents sporadically occur in the region like small earthquakes. The conflicting sides are usually engaged in disputes over water reservoirs, lands, pastures, illegal border crossings as well as ethnic discords. Such disputes are usually accompanied with measures such as road blocking, local hassles, skirmishes between border guards and nationalistic statements (see CACI Analyst, July 16, 2020). Due to the rapid reaction of both states’ governments and presidents, the incident was halted after a few days and the situation was normalized.
On March 11-12, 2021, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov visited Tashkent. More than 20 agreements were signed during the visit and the two states announced that all remaining border problems would be fully resolved within a period of three months. As a confirmation of this progress, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan demonstrated major breakthroughs in border delimitation by the end of March 2021: the disputed segments of the border were delimited and the road from Sokh to Rishtan was unblocked.
IMPLICATIONS: The ceremony of reopening the road was solemn and attended by the Khokim (Mayor) of Uzbekistan’s Fergana province and the Governor of Kyrgyzstan’s neighboring Batken province. In his speech, the Khokim proclaimed “May the friendship of our peoples be eternal!” This reminded of the Treaty on Eternal Friendship, signed in 1997 between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. This official political and legal document, containing the emotional word “eternal” is quite illustrative of the historical background of relations between the countries and the regional status-quo, meaning that friendship always prevails over tensions.
During the Sokh incident, the Sokh-Rishtan road was blocked due to custom regulations of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), of which Kyrgyzstan is a member but Uzbekistan is not. This fact revealed the essential dissonance between the ambiguous membership interests in the EEU and the needs of everyday communication and cooperation between the neighboring local populations of two Central Asian countries.
Despite these controversies, the Uzbek and Kyrgyz sides also agreed on some other segments of the interstate border. For instance, the borderline around the water reservoir Kempir-Abad in Uzbekistan’s Andijan province was finally resolved. This agreement was very illustrative of an innovative and win-win approach to the issue. Indeed, it was decided that the Kempir-Abad water resources would be jointly managed. The Uzbek side will provide Kyrgyzstan’s citizens free and unrestricted access to water from this reservoir for drinking, watering, fishing, etc. The Uzbek side also guaranteed not to erect engineering-technical installations around the water reservoir, and the two sides decided to exchange some territories in order to finalize border delimitation to their mutual benefit.
Indeed, the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan relationship has maintained a progressive pace over the last four years. In October 2017, the two states signed a Declaration on Strategic Partnership, which has a special article on cross-border cooperation and regional security. Kyrgyzstan has since changed presidents three times. Despite this political turbulence, each subsequent Kyrgyz president has explicitly confirmed the friendly and strategic relations with Uzbekistan. It took only two months for Mr. Japarov to achieve a resolution of the border problems with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, with the official establishment of a three-month deadline to fully resolve the border question. It seems that this task is being accomplished.
The Sokh enclave is a very symbolical place in the Fergana Valley and in Central Asia. It is mostly populated by ethnic Tajiks, belongs to Uzbekistan, and is located in the territory of Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, it symbolizes the permanent spirit and environment of regional integration in Central Asia. For the regional states, this case can serve as an example of best practice on which to capitalize.
Finally, it should be noted that this outstanding event took place before the upcoming third Consultative Meeting of the presidents of five Central Asian states this year. Revitalized in 2017, this regional process – valuable in itself – has not been free from geopolitical distortions and has slowed down at times. The opening of the Road from Sokh to Uzbekistan’s mainland – although a quite modest development at first glance – also has a geopolitical dimension. For example, some experts (mostly from Russia) have pointed out that it was possible without Moscow’s mediation, ignoring the fact that Central Asian states have actually always rejected third party mediation in solving regional problems.
CONCLUSIONS: Although the geographical importance of reopening of the road is limited, the political implications are very significant. This breakthrough in Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border regulations provided an instructive and strategically important experience and lesson: innovative solutions are possible and in demand when there is political will. It was accomplished in the spirit of the Treaty on Eternal Friendship and the Declaration on Strategic Partnership.
Until recently, both sides have been stubborn in their positions regarding water management and border issues. These positions were based on three factors: 1) a narrow understanding (or overestimation) of the value and essence of national sovereignty; 2) misunderstanding (or underestimation) of the value and essence of regional integration; 3) exaggeration and fear of geopolitical uncertainty in Central Asia.
“Joint” is a word that very well reflects the innovative approach to resolving the road issue in the Sokh enclave and other segments of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. The sides demonstrated their ability and will to find common solutions to the joint use of water reservoirs and installations. When the sides find technical solutions to politically delicate problems, even the existence of the border per se will lose its importance and divisive character.
There is much work ahead on remaining issues regarding other enclaves, as well as border and water management issues. However, the next steps on these issues will be greatly simplified since both states can build on the recent success. In regional affairs overall, the so-called spillover effect can manifest itself as success in one sphere and on one issue stimulates solutions to other issues in other spheres.
30 years have passed since independence, and no excuse should be accepted for delays in solving regional problems that, as seen in this case, appeared to be easily solvable. What used to be a stumbling block in border cooperation between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan can now turn into a cornerstone of regional integration in Central Asia if all regional countries learn a positive lesson from this small but strategically important breakthrough.
Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Research Institution “Knowledge Caravan”, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.