Territorial disputes between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan may deteriorate into an armed clash
WILL SHAKHIMARDAN BECOME ANOTHER KARABAKH?
Another round of border delimitation and demarcation negotiations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is being prepared. It is already clear, however, that the meeting between diplomats and border guards will be anything but simple. This September, the parliament of Kyrgyzstan backed by Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev laid claims to the Uzbek enclave of Shakhimardan located in a picturesque gorge in the Batken region on the Altai slopes on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz lawmakers said that Shakhimardan, the site of spas and sanatoriums, had been given over to Uzbekistan illegitimately (see Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 10, 2004). In fact, Shakhimardan may be not the only disputed area. In the post-Soviet period of sovereignty Bishkek and Tashkent agreed on delimitation of only 50% of the state border 1,270 kilometers long. The situation is not made any simpler by the land mines Uzbek sappers laid along the border. Thirteen locals died in explosions in the last two years.
Aware of the complicated nature of the situation, Uzbekistan deployed units of the regular army in border areas. The Shakhimardan garrison (where units of the Soviet antiaircraft defense had been deployed once) was reinforced. These days, the barracks are used by Uzbek special forces deployed in the region in 1999 when gangs of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan attempted to fight their way into the Ferghana Valley. It seems that the Uzbek military is also supposed to repel the Kyrgyz regular army should it try to establish control over Shakhimardan.
Daniil Kislov, Ferghana.Ru Chief Editor and an expert in Central Asian problems, considers a shooting war over Shakhimardan unlikely. Kislov maintains that Kyrgyzstan is much too weak for it. Moreover, an outright armed confrontation is a direct violation of the CIS accords (the ones made in the wake of disintegration of the Soviet Union) on inviolability of state borders. Kyrgyzstan's offensive will not be supported by post-Soviet countries or by its partners in the CIS Collective Security Treaty.
Some experts including Sergei Kortunov believe that a conflict between Uzbeks and Kyrgyzes on the border may flare up over the discord (land and water disputes) in the Osh region dating to the early 1990's, the time just before disintegration of the Soviet Union. Colonel Vladimir Popov of the Academy of Military Sciences considers scenarios of this sort highly unlikely and actually next to impossible. He is convinced that the ethnic situation in border areas of Kyrgyzstan is dramatically different from the situation in the 1990's. Uzbeks account for 50% of the population of border areas of Kyrgyzstan. In fact, their life in this republic is better and easier than that of their compatriots in Uzbekistan itself. Moreover, even living standards are higher in Kyrgyzstan. Business opportunities are abundant, and Uzbeks and Kyrgyzes do not have anything to get indignant over.
Popov believes, however, that Kyrgyzstan's official territorial claims to Uzbekistan just may deteriorate into an armed conflict. Kyrgyz authorities and businessmen have property in Shakhimardan (the cable-way, spas, etc.). It is an additional stimulus to establish control over the area. Local Uzbeks are unlikely to object, because business opportunities in Kyrgyzstan are much better.
The other aspect of the matter is purely military. Most Kyrgyz units are located in the Batken region quite close to Shakhimardan. There is only one road to the enclave from Uzbekistan, a road that is easy to cut. Combat prowess of the Kyrgyz army increased in the last year, thanks to regular military exercises with the participation of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Located in a gorge, Shakhimardan itself is quite vulnerable from the military point of view. To have the enclave controlled, one merely has to know the mountains the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border runs across.
At the same time, Uzbek Armed Forces have strike aviation and brigades of paratroops. Landing tactical forces, Uzbek army may operate behind the enemy lines, taking over and holding strategic objects and territories. Should a long-term armed conflict occur, Uzbekistan has the military potential to take over the debatable territory. Diplomats and officers will be forced to negotiate again in any case.
© Translated by Ferghana.Ru