By Dmitry Shlapentokh (09/17/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Bishkek has long considered whether to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union. Yet recent events relating to the resumed hostility with Uzbekistan, border disputes with Tajikistan, and Russia’s move against Ukraine could play a decisive role in Bishkek’s decision to accommodate Moscow’s geopolitical project. An additional factor is the worsening situation in the Middle East, where the rise of Islamic extremism and the clear inability of the U.S. and its allies to deal with the problem is clearly taken into consideration by Kyrgyzstan’s leadership and likely provides an incentive for reinforcing its alliance with Moscow.
By Oleg Salimov (09/03/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The governments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan reported significant progress in consultations on border demarcation and delimitation during their recent meeting in Bishkek. They also announced that an agreement was reached on economic, social, and other forms of cooperation intended to stimulate neighborly and mutually beneficial relationships. At the same time, people living in the border regions of both countries continue to engage in violent clashes and shootouts. A peaceful resolution of the conflict over long-disputed territory will test the political maturity of these Central Asian republics. The outcome of this conflict can predetermine the future development and stability of the region.
The last week of August was marked by multiple meetings between various committees, delegations, and officials from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek. The topics of discussion revolved around border issues, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural exchange and assistance. The border dispute delegations met on August 26, the Tajik – Kyrgyz intergovernmental committee had its session on August 27-28, and Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Joomart Otorbayev met Tajikistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Azim Ibrohim on August 28.
The sides discussed the border problem and numerous proposals for increasing bilateral cooperation. As reported by the Kyrgyz government, the border dispute delegations of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan reached an agreement on the simultaneous construction of a road and two bridges, which will connect the Tajik enclave Vorukh on Kyrgyz territory with Tajikistan. The agreement includes provisions on relocating border patrol stations and establishing favorable conditions for timely construction. The delegations endorsed a proposal from the joint investigative committee for impartial examination of all border-related incidents taking place since January 2014 in the disputed territory. The sides exchanged maps with layouts of the border and agreed to intensify the process of delimitation and demarcation.
The session of the Tajik – Kyrgyz intergovernmental committee proved to be the most productive among these meetings. The committee devoted a significant amount of time to discussing issues relating to electric energy. Thus, agreements were reached on mutual assistance in emergency situations in the countries’ electric systems, possible transit of Tajik electricity to Kazakhstan through Kyrgyzstan in 2015, and continued efforts to realize the “CASA – 1000” project. This project foresees the expansion of electric energy trade in Central Asia and South Asia with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan exporting up to 1000 megawatt of electric energy to Pakistan and Afghanistan for up to 15 years. However, as of June 2013, the project’s main investor, the Asian Development Bank, withdrew from the project that must be completed in 2017, citing political instability in Afghanistan. While Russia, the World Bank, and the Islamic Development Bank expressed their interest, the prospects of the project remain unclear. The other resolutions of the committee included water allocation, facilitation of transit impediments, educational exchange, and cooperation in healthcare, culture, and art.
Finally, the meeting between Otorbayev and Ibrohim was mainly dedicated to the problem of demarcation and delimitation of the border between the two countries. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan organized an intergovernmental committee on resolving border disputes in 2001. Out of 971 kilometers of the border, around 500 are disputed. The lack of compromise is compounded by the differences in interpretation of Soviet era maps and Soviet officials’ motivations during Central Asia territorial delimitation in 1924. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also have simultaneous border disputes with Uzbekistan. All three have enclaves populated by ethnic minorities in the Fergana Valley where their borders connect and interlock. Two Tajik enclaves, Vorukh and Chorku, and two Uzbek enclaves, Sokh and Shakhimardan, are located in Kyrgyzstan, whereas Uzbekistan has the Kyrgyz enclave Barak and the Tajik enclave Sarvak. Besides recent tensions in the Vorukh, Kyrgyzstan experiences frequent conflicts in the Uzbek Sokh enclave. The most recent took place in spring 2013 when a Kyrgyz border patrol was taken hostage by Sokh residents.
While Tajik and Kyrgyz officials were meeting in Bishkek, the situation on the border remained highly volatile. On August 25, right before the Tajik delegation arrived in Kyrgyzstan, five Tajiks were wounded when confronting Kyrgyz authorities on the border of Tajikistan’s Sughd province, increasing the casualties in the territorial dispute. Still, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are ought to find a compromise and overcome the existing disagreements on borderlines. The observed, during the last official meetings, employment of such factors as mutual economic dependency, membership in the same regional organizations such as SCO and CSTO, and common cultural and historic heritage indicate the willingness of both players to prioritize long-term benefits of peaceful coexistence over questionable short-term territorial gains.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (08/14/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Recent court decisions in Kyrgyzstan to release and cancel the charges against a number of key political figures have turned into a major topic of dispute. Some Kyrgyz observers perceive these decisions to constitute a sign of weakness and a significant step backward in the fight against corruption. Others have continuously underlined the political nature of the anticorruption campaign and the judicial system’s full dependency on the President, government and the parliament, despite a decade of judiciary reform.
On August 1, Bishkek’s Pervomaisky District Court released former Speaker of Parliament Akhmatbek Keldibekov and allowed him to travel to Germany to obtain medical treatment. The Prosecutor General’s Office opened the criminal case against Keldibekov on November 20, 2013. The outspoken opposition figure and member of the nationalist Ata-Jurt party, the single largest party in parliament, was arrested on charges of misappropriating public funds when he was the Chairman of the Social Fund in 2002-2005 and of the Central Tax Service Agency in 2008-2009. Keldibekov has continuously denied all the charges against him and described them as politically motivated.
From the early days of Keldibekov’s arrest, his supporters, mostly based in Kyrgyzstan’s southern regions, have organized a number of large-scale demonstrations calling for his immediate release. Around 200 people have tried to storm the regional government building, throwing stones and bottles against police officers and blocking central roads connecting the country’s regions. According to Bishkek-based political analyst Aalybek Akunov, it was the persistent protests in the south of the country that brought about Keldibekov’s release, demonstrating that the central authorities in Bishkek will continue to encounter problems in extending their influence across the entire country. Akunov also believes that “the protests have turned into an essential bargaining tool with the central authorities in reaching this or that agreement.”
Other political commentators describe this decision as the result of an informal consensus between the power holders and the opposition. According to them, Keldibekov was purposefully freed to obtain medical treatment abroad, so that he will simply stay there and not return to the Kyrgyzstan. This is especially favorable to the country’s political elite in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections. It should also be noted that the Ata-Jurt party was earlier heavily weakened by the arrests of its other three prominent leaders, charged with attempting to violently overthrow the government. All of them have been freed, but lost their seats in the parliament in accordance with the country’s legislation.
Another Bishkek district court has passed a decision to cancel all charges against former Bishkek mayor Isa Omurkulov, who was earlier convicted for abuse of power and illegal approval of the boundaries of the “Victory” park. Omurkulov is a member of the pro-presidential ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan and many believe that the case against him was simply opened to cool off the allegations that the fight against corruption is being carried out selectively and targeted only against prominent members of the opposition forces. Along with Omurkulov, charges were also dropped against four key members of his staff since, as the judge stated, “there was no basis for charging them with crimes.”
In addition to the aforementioned cases, the Court has also freed the son of MP Turatbek Madylbekov, who was earlier charged with illegally selling state owned assets. A top manager in former President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s team, Uchkun Tashbaev, has also been freed despite heavy charges that he exceeded his authority while heading the country’s Agency for Geology and Mineral Resources. In the words of the opposition and independent MP Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, “all those decisions demonstrate that Kyrgyzstan is losing its battle against corruption. Individuals charged with heavy crimes are being freed. The fight has been declared just to fool the population and did not bring any substantive results.” At this stage, Nariman Tuleev, mayor of Bishkek during Bakiev’s regime, remains the only prominent political figure serving his full sentence in one of the country’s prisons.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (08/05/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On July 10, an exchange of fire on a disputed section of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border reportedly left at least seven border guards from both sides injured. One Tajik citizen died of gunshot wounds at the scene of the incident. The foreign Ministries of the neighboring countries, which generally enjoy good relations, exchanged official notes of protest accusing one another of breaching international law and asking for clarification of the circumstances.
The shootout took place on the outskirts of the Vorukh, an exclave of Tajik territory entirely enclosed within Kyrgyzstan’s southern region of Batken. The Vorukh enclave is a densely populated area with a population of 40,000 residents, mainly of Tajik ethnicity. Kyrgyz residents living around Vorukh have to drive through it to get to different parts of the Batken region.
To avoid this difficulty and the occasional frictions it causes, the Kyrgyz government last January decided to build a new road to bypass the enclave completely. Tajik authorities issued a statement demanding an immediate end to the construction works, saying that the road is being built on a contested territory and complaining that it would allow the Kyrgyz to blockade the Tajik enclave. At that time, the arguments over the road construction led to a one-hour shootout between the sides, leaving two Tajik and five Kyrgyz border guards heavily injured. After the shootout, Bishkek closed its border for almost two months and recalled its ambassador from Dushanbe for consultations.
The July 10 shootout at the border coincided with the upcoming talks between the heads of Border Services of the two countries. According to Kyrgyz official sources, the residents of the Vorukh enclave have purposefully taken unlawful actions to stop the negotiations over the construction of the aforementioned road. The Kyrgyz Border Service made an official statement claiming that around 30 Tajik citizens have tried to build a water pipeline from the territory of Kyrgyzstan (river Karavshin) to the Tajik village of Bedak, in Vorukh enclave. Kyrgyz border guards approached the scene, demanding a halt to the illegal actions after which local Tajiks threw stones at them. The situation escalated further and eventually led to a firefight between the sides.
In its official protest to Bishkek, Dushanbe gave a different description of the situation, claiming that their citizens were installing a water pipeline on the territory of the Vorukh cooperative at around 11.30 on July 10, when Kyrgyz border guards approached them and demanded to stop construction works in an aggressive and insulting manner. Tajik border guards, who were nearby, tried to stop the actions of their Kyrgyz counterparts, who opened fire with automatic firearms, injuring several and killing one civilian.
Indeed, the sides are throwing accusations at one another for starting the conflict, instead of demonstrating political will to resolve the pressing problem. The July 10 shooting is unlikely to be the last and the death of a local Vorukh enclave resident could further exacerbate nationalist feelings.
To prevent further escalation of the conflict between the relatively friendly countries, political analyst at Moskovskiye Novosti Arkady Dubnov suggested that mediation by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) could positively contribute to a peaceful development. In his words “Mr. Bordyuzha, Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, is not a representative of the Russian Federation, but heads an international organization, with both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as its members, and is in a position to talk to both sides and positively contribute to border conflict resolution.”
The proposal seems timely, since the issue of drawing a border cannot easily be resolved by two conflicting sides. Despite the creation of a Joint Border Drawing Commission, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have since 2006 not delimited a single kilometer of their contested border, which currently amounts to 460 kilometers. Negotiations are deadlocked for the simple reason that the Kyrgyz side refers to maps from the 1950s and the Tajik side to maps from the 1920s. Thus, continued negotiations along these lines are simply unproductive.
Additionally, with Kyrgyzstan joining the Russia-led Customs Union, drawing concrete state borders with its neighbors is one of the many priority tasks for Bishkek to address.
The author wrote this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the organization for which the author works.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (07/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In response to Uzbekistan’s decision to stop supplying gas to southern Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek considers blocking the water coming to the Grand Namangan Canal under the guise of making long awaited reparations. This, according to many experts, is not a constructive decision and will simply further worsen bilateral relations. But Bishkek’s efforts to establish contacts with Uzbek colleagues did not bring any results. Silence from Tashkent is generating speculations and a spread of rumors from both sides about the deterioration of relations between the two neighbors.
On April 14, 2014, Uzbekistan stopped supplying gas to southern Kyrgyzstan. In Osh city, over 60,000 people remain without gas. The reason for the plight of Osh residents is the fact that in early April 2014, the Kyrgyz government reached an agreement with Russia’s state company Gazprom to sell its 100 percent share of Kyrgyzgaz Company, in exchange for investments and an uninterrupted supply of gas. Formally, Tashkent did not violate the terms of its contract with the Kyrgyz side, according to which the Uzbek gas monopoly has the right to terminate the supply of natural gas to Kyrgyzstan in case of a Company ownership change. This, according to Kyrgyz economist Dzhumakadyr Akeneyev, “should have been foreseen by the Kyrgyz authorities during the long negotiation process with the Russian side over the transfer of Kyrgyzgaz ownership to them.”
According to Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev, Bishkek’s efforts to establish contact with Uzbek authorities did not bring any results. His letter to his Uzbek counterpart to resume gas supply to Kyrgyzstan’s southern residents did not bring any reaction. “Gazprom took upon itself obligations to uninterruptedly supply gas to Kyrgyzstan, and is currently holding talks with Tashkent,” stated Otorbaev. Gazprom, which is often considered as an instrument of Russia’s foreign policy, is also active in Uzbekistan, but mainly in its western part, close to the Aral Sea. Theoretically, Gazprom’s operation in Uzbekistan could sell Uzbek gas to a Gazprom subsidiary in Kyrgyzstan, and according to experts, the price would be cheaper. For Uzbekistan, this seems to be a bad deal since its gas will be sold to its former customer at a relatively lower price. But to deliver Uzbek gas to Kyrgyzstan, Gazprom still needs to use the pipelines of Uztransgas, the company in charge of transporting gas and liquid hydrocarbons produced in Uzbekistan to domestic consumers and for export. Building a pipeline across southern Kazakhstan is not an option since it will take many years and is too costly. Thus, negotiations will be intense and their outcome remains unclear.
From the very first days when Uzbekistan stopped supplying natural gas to southern Kyrgyzstan, heavy discussions have taken place in Bishkek over conducting reparation works in the Grand Namangan Canal, located in the country’s southern Jalal-Abad region. Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy Prime Minister Abdrakhman Mamataliev stated, “Since the Canal’s construction in 1957, reparation works took place only twice, and we might have to close it temporarily and carry out all the needed works.” Indeed, no one questions that the Grand Namangan Canal must be repaired, but taking into account the fact that it is summer and the water is crucial for Uzbekistan’s harvest, the decision is not constructive and will massively damage ordinary Uzbek citizens working in agricultural sector. Fortunately, not all key figures in the Kyrgyz government support this idea.
Kyrgyzstan’s First Vice-Prime Minister Tayirbek Sarpashev said that Kyrgyzstan should not take such a step and revert to provocations. In his words, “Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are brotherly nations, with cultural, economic and political ties. Ups and downs are common between neighbors and it is simply wrong to intimidate someone.”
In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan’s opposition leaders were quick to use the situation to criticize the authorities. According to them, this demonstrates the government’s inability to carry out its functions, despite its assurances to the population of uninterrupted gas supply. The government is also being criticized for its inability to conduct an independent foreign policy, i.e. to establish direct contact with the authorities of the neighboring state and involving Gazprom in the negotiations is only further complicating the state of bilateral relations.
The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.