Staunton, March 22 – Both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have moved their military forces up to their common border in the Fergana valley, the latest escalation of longstanding disputes between the two over the demarcation of the border and access to scarce water supplies and one that threatens to spark a real war.
And while an article in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” argues that both sides have reasons to back down, its authors, Grigory Mikhaylov and Viktoriya Panfilova, suggest that each time there is such an escalation, there is the risk that it will lead to an explosion not only on this border but on other Central Asian borders as well (ng.ru/cis/2016-03-22/1_asia.html).
Reporting from the Kyrgyz capital, the two Russian journalists say that a few days ago, Tashkent sent two APVs and “about 40 soldiers in full military dress” to the Madaniyat border crossing point, a violation of agreements between the two governments not to further militarize an already tense location.
“According to the Kyrgyz border guard service,” Mikhaylov and Panfilova continue, Uzbekistan’s actions not only violate earlier accords but threaten to spark more violence. Tashkent for its part says it dispatched forces to the border to block infiltration of Islamist radicals from Kyrgyzstan.
In response to the Uzbek moves, Bishkek dispatched several dozen border guards with weapons to the border region, including members of its Scorpion special forces unit. (On Kyrgyzstan’s response, see knews.kg/2016/03/21/na-granitsu-s-uzbekistanom-vydvinuli-spetsnaz-skorpion/).
Some “hurrah patriots” in Kyzrgyzstan have called for an even more militant response, the Moscow journalists say, but so far “the situation has not gotten out of control” because Uzbekistan’s military has massive superiority in the region and because Kyrgyz officials are working hard to “suppress all calls for war in their cradle.”
As the two “Nezavisimaya gazeta” journalists observe, “incidents on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border take place on a regular basis.” The primary cause is a dispute over where the border drawn by the Soviets should run, a far from trivial matter given that wells and hence water may be on one side of the border and not the other.
The importance of water as a causal factor is suggested by the continuing dispute over whether a reservoir is located in the Uzbek republic, something Tashkent insists on because it was constructed in 1941 by the Uzbek SSR, or in Kyrgyzstan where the Soviet-imposed borders suggest it should be.
There are also suggestions, the two journalists say, that people in both capitals are interested in keeping the border issues unresolved because that allows them both to profit from the flow of contraband and to divert popular anger away from domestic problems to a supposed foreign threat.
According to Mikhaylov and Panfilova, certain outside actors are also interested in keeping things tense. Saudi Arabia, they say, helps Wahhabis recruit people on both sides of the borders. And Russian experts like Aleksandr Knyazev say that closing the borders on holidays and more generally can always be explained by a desire to keep extremists out.
Knyazev says, however, that “there is no basis for seeing in this the work of outside players except for hypothetical terrorists from Kyrgyz territory who act not independently but are provoked by their sponsors from Turkey or the Arab countries.
Uzbek political scientist Rafik Sayfulin blames the unresolved border issue for periodic increases in tension, but he is convinced, the Moscow journalists say, that “petty clashes will not grow into a broad confrontation.” One reason for that, he suggests, is that everyone knows that such a clash on one Central Asian border could lead to fighting on many of them, with each of the sides convinced that the other is a threat to its security.
“In Tashkent,” he says, “people believe that Bishkek has not taken completely adequate measures to oppose the Islamists and ISIS” because “it is generally known that in Kyrgyzstan negative trends are intensifying, many young people are joining ISIS, and Bishkek officials know this and don’t hide it.”
In that way, fights over borders and water in Central Asia are intertwined with conflicts with Islamist groups, a combination that makes it likely that at some point small conflicts will grow into big ones, especially given that the regimes in the region can invoke the fight against Islamism to pursue their other and more immediate agendas.