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2013 started with renewed tensions on the jig-saw Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. The region of the Uzbek enclave of Sokh, completely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken province, was the stage of a violent confrontation between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz last month. The violence (read more about it here) has brought back bitter memories for both sides regarding the wave of ethnic clashes around Osh in 2010, when hundreds were killed. It also raises the question of what might happen next. Will we see an escalation of violence, even possibly a war between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to settle once and for all old disputes in the region? Or will the problem represented by the enclaves now be solved in a different way, diplomatically, something that both countries have been unable to do ever since their independence, 11 years ago? The answer to both questions is probably not.
Sokh (read more about the territory here) and other small enclaves along the Uzbek/Kyrgyz/Tajik border, such as Shakrimardon (Uzbek territory inside Kyrgyzstan) and Vorukh (Tajik territory inside Kyrgyzstan) are examples of puzzling Soviet geographic legacies that are very difficult to understand at first glance. It is an Uzbek territory, yes, but it is located inside Kyrgyzstan and is populated by mainly ethnically Tajiks. The whole region of the enclave, the Fergana Valley, was historically inhabited by different ethnicities, which had their communities living peacefully in the same cities and districts; therefore, creating borders here would always mean to generate artificial tensions. But that was the modus operandi of the Soviet nomenklatura – divide to rule. During the Soviet times, like in many other places of the Soviet Union, the Russians would act as brokers whenever tension arose. This helped Moscow to maintain control over the region. By the end of the USSR, the Russian pull-out created a power vacuum and, at the same time, led to the rise of nationalists all over the region. The most dramatic development of this new outlook in Central Asia was certainly the Civil War in Tajikistan (1992-1997), when local elites vied for control. Tension also rose because of the collapse of the Soviet Collective farm system, meaning that many farmers were suddenly forced to look for jobs in the cities.
In the Fergana Valley a process of Islamic renaissance during the 1990s had a particularly important influence after the fall of the USSR. The rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Salafist militia, led the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, to adopt a tough line of repression against all Muslim mobilization in the region. Still today the valley is seen by the Uzbek authorities as a hotbed of Islamic activity, although clearly the idea that Islamists still hide in the region is used by Karimov as an excuse to exterminate political rivals and any sort of dissent in the region. The bloody incident in Andijon in 2005 shows the ruthlessness of the Karimov regime in dealing with any signs of instability in the region, but, on the other hand, the violence there also created problems to Karimov on the external sphere. The US, which hitherto largely played blind to Karimov’s abysmal Human Rights abuses, could not ignore such violence, and a period of estrangement followed. Now, however, Tashkent and Washington are forging a new alliance again (as can be read here and in my post in this blog).
In Kyrgyzstan, ethnic tensions have played a role in domestic politics, since Uzbeks are majority in important cities in the South (such as Osh and Jalalabad) and traditionally control most of the economy in cities in the region. The ethnic differences between North and South have been an important feature of Kyrgyz politics ever since independence. Kurmanbek Bakiev, the president that was ousted in a popular revolt in 2010, had the support of Southern leaders like Kamchibek Tashiev, who was his Emergency Situations Minister and in September of the same year granted an interview advocating the dominance of the Kyrgyz over other ethnicities in the country. According to an Uzbek leader from Kyrgyzstan, Bakiev’s rule marked the worst period of interethnic relations since the country’s independence, paving the way for the Osh clashes in 2010. After Bakiev was ousted, politicians from the North have taken over, first president Roza Otunbayeva and, since 2011, her political heir, president Almazbek Atambayev. The current president has pledged to work towards the unity of the nations in Kyrgyzstan by “never” use “ethnic labels”. Nonetheless, the tensions between the North elites and Kyrgyz leaders from the South are still pretty much alive; in October 2012, I was in Bishkek when Tashiev (who denies being a Nationalist) led a group of supporters on a rally in the capital and urged them to overthrow the government. He was arrested and is currently being tried.
Domestic politics considerations, evidently, play a prominent role in what might happen in the enclaves and are one of the reasons why I don’t believe the Sokh tension will evolve into a larger, interstate conflict. First of all, neither Karimov nor Atambayev have referred to the situation in the enclave using menacing words. Actually, it was certainly strange to see Karimov’s reaction. The Uzbek leader is known for its difficult relations with its neighbours, particularly Tajikistan, and for not hesitating in making strong and hostile statements which certainly do not please his peers. Recently, for example, he said that the tensions with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan regarding the construction of hydropower dams by Dushanbe and Bishkek might lead to war. However, regarding Sokh, he was clearly keen on defusing tensions: he said the fracas was prompted by external agents (actually, one of his favourite quotes everytime there is a problem in the region) and agreed to pay compensation to Kyrgyzstan. One other consideration is Karimov’s desire not to generate further instability in a region that gave him so many headaches in 2005, with the violence in Andijon. Actually, such is Karimov's apparent preocupation with the Sokh issue that, according to a Kyrgyz MP, he is willing to sell the territory to Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, a motion approved by MPs asking for Uzbekistan to apologise for the violence did not raise much attention. Atambayev has been busy with a subject that has been much more important to the nationalist opposition and was actually the excuse for the October 2012 rally in Bishkek – the contract with a Canadian company regarding the country’s biggest gold mine. A possible review of the current contract would certainly appease the Nationalist opposition and help Atambayev defuse threats from the opposition.
Economically, both countries also do not have any reason to start an open conflict. Both are clearly focused on economic goals, trying to attract foreign investment. The instability created by a conflict would certainly generate an uncertain scenario for investors which already entertain doubts over the business climate in both countries. The Kyrgyz government, for example, has recently passed a long term (2013-2017) strategy for sustainable development in which political stability in the country is clearly a foregone conclusion.
Finally, geopolitics also plays a role in stemming inter-state clashes over the enclaves. In a scenario in which there are widespread doubts about the effects of the Nato pull-out from Afghanistan in 2014, the US are particularly keen on seeing a stable Central Asia, in which Taliban militant might not find a safe haven, hence making the transition even tougher for the fragile government in Kabul. A renewal of nation-wide violence in Afghanistan in 2014 would mean that the whole American involvement in Afghanistan since 2001, with so many dead soldiers, was basically useless. Barack Obama and its Democratic Party would have to pay a steep political price for such defeat in the 2016 Presidential elections. Even if the Taliban does not represent a real threat after 2014, if Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are unstable, the conflict might of course spill out across its borders into Tajikistan and Afghanistan. As in many international conflicts, an Uzbek-Kyrgyz war would bring foreign Islamist militants waging jihad and, moreover, open old Islamist wounds in the Fergana Valley. It is a risk that certainly the US would not like to take.
Something similar can be said about Russia. Recently bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington have definitely taken a turn for the worse due to the Magnitsky affair, and, considering that the US still entertain interests in Central Asia, there is simply nothing to be gained by Moscow with a direct conflict in the region. This is not to say that Russia simply doesn't care. Clearly they understand that the US forces should leave once and for all. A source of unease is the US military presence in the Manas airbase (near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan), but Moscow seems to have the uphand now, since the Kyrgyz authorities have recently announced they will boot the Americans out by 2014. Should Uzbekistan invades Kyrgyzstan, Russia would need to enter the conflict on the Kyrgyz side, since Kyrgyzstan is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an organization which Uzbekistan quit in 2012. Given Uzbekistan recent renewed links with the US, a Russian involvement in such fashion would make, unnecessarily, bilateral (Washington-Moscow) relations even worse.
China, another big international player in the region, would also likely see any conflict along its Western borders as troublesome, since its two-pronged approach to Central Asia, focused on security and economy, would be in jeopardy. Security in the region is important for China due to the possible effects of a conflict on its unrestive Xinjiang province and its Uyghur majority. Uyghur militants are already supposed to operate in Central Asia, but a conflict might make it easier for them to mobilise and recruit in Kyrgyzstan. In terms of economy, Chinese investment in infra-structure has been intensive in recent years in the Kyrgyz Republic. China is busy, for example, improving Kyrgyz roads, therefore creating better conditions for exporting goods. Kyrgyzstan is currently one important channel used by China to send goods to European markets; whoever visits Bishkek’s gargantuan Dordoi Bazar is astonished to see the sheer amount of Chinese goods which make their way into the country. A conflict, of course, might create difficulties for Beijing to use the Central Asian channel in order to export its manufactured goods.
Notwithstanding the lack of reasons that could lead the tension in and around Sokh to escalate, it is worth noting that there are also no clear reasons that would lead Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to reach an agreement in order to defuse, once and for all, the possibility of war in the region. In the past, negotiations took place leading to the proposal that Sokh would become part of Kyrgyzstan in exchange for a Kyrgyz territorial concession to the Uzbeks. The proposal, however, was never implemented. Uzbekistan did not accept Kyrgyzstan’s initial territorial offer. But the problem here is not territories, land per se – the problem is the implications of such a deal. Possibly these changes would have to be implemented with the resettlement of the enclave community, which probably see the land as theirs for historical reasons, which have been living there for generations. Would they accept resettlement? And what sort of impact would this have on the public image of Karimov and Atambayev? Both would certainly try to sell the deal to their domestic audiences as victories for Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, while the local resettled population probably would not accept this and would see any change as a concession to the other side. I might be wrong, but would the leaders be willing to take the risk? I don’t think so.
In sum, I don’t think there are reasons to believe anything will substantially change in Sokh or in any of the enclaves. There are new fences been built, and still the traffic around Sokh has been restricted by angry Kyrgyz, but both governments will try their best to foster normality in the region. They will also remain vigilant, since there is always the risk of a new, localised conflict like the one which took place in January. Sadly, these conflicts will continue to happen until the local communities themselves forget Nationalist sentiments and demand resettlement. Or until they learn again to live peacefully side by side, like they once lived so many years ago.