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Tackling Kyrgyzstan’s Border Issues: Illusions and Reality

“Developing partnership between local governments, central authority and civil society will uncover lessons learned that went unnoticed and best practices to tackle Kyrgyzstan’s border issues,” expert Chyngyz Israilov notes in his article for CABAR.asia.

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Jeenbekov’s working visit to the Batken region in March 2020. Source: Kaktus.media

During his visit to the Batken region in March 2020, President of the Kyrgyz Republic Sooronbai Jeenbekov spoke about the importance of resolving cross-border disputes constructively, that is, through “wisdom and endurance” – requiring negotiations, while also considering views of the local population[1]. Besides, Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy concept prioritizes “the full legal designation of the state border of the Kyrgyz Republic, building and strengthening of confidence-building measures in border areas with neighboring countries”, a similar one is also reflected in the National Development Strategy of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2018-2020.[2]  Meanwhile, the data of Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service demonstrates the need to take the thorny path to address the border issues. There were 16 border disputes in just ten months of 2019, wherein 13 of them took place on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, 2 in the Kyrgyz-Uzbek site, and 1 case occurred on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border[3].  At the same time, the Border Service notes that the emphasis was placed “on strengthening the state border, improving the border infrastructure and the material and technical base of border units”[4].

Kyrgyzstan’s border issues have always been considered too complex and sensitive to develop policies and initiatives.

The complexity of border issues lies in the incomplete delimitation and demarcation processes and the use of shared natural resources and trade channels in the border region. Sensitivity, for its part, has to do with the extremely emotional position of the population’s majority and different views of adjacent communities to the border issue. With a clear understanding of these elements, Kyrgyz society asks questions – all related to the possibility of resolving cross-border disputes soon. We assume that both the state apparatus and relevant institutions in the search for adequate responses must proceed from the following. There are certain illusions and reality that together form the nature of cross-border disputes.

Illusion # 1: “Resolving border issues depends on the country’s leadership”

When Kyrgyzstan’s top leadership, usually the president and the prime minister, meet or have a phone call with colleagues from neighboring countries, the public quite reasonably expects cross-border disputes to be no longer on agenda of bilateral relations. This illusion is explained by the fact that people tend to consider the president as the sovereign who can actually resolve cross-border issues. However, the real border situation offers that high expectations from the government are only one of the illusions. To support the assumption, we will dwell upon several important points of reality.

First, reaching an agreement with neighboring countries on specific cross-border incidents does not necessarily guarantee a shift to a peaceful resolution of future disputes. One of the relevant examples is the two meetings held by presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in late July and early August 2019 in both territories within a week, where they assured of further consolidation of good neighborly relations.[5]

Source: Kaktus.media

A month after this landmark event, there was violent conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in September 2019, accompanied by human casualties[6]. Despite numerous bilateral meetings and practical measures at a different level after the conflict, continuous clashes make it hard to talk about tangible agreement on issues. Secondly, such a border crisis pushes citizens to be more active, in some cases to take the initiative and make demands on power structures[7]. The causes range from the government’s decisions perceived as compliant and not in population’s interest to authorities’ responsiveness to representatives of border communities.

For instance, there are well-known stories of senior decision-makers signing documents that transferred certain territories to neighboring states on a temporary or permanent basis[8]. The recent arrest of a deputy of Leilek region’s local council is attributed to him often raising the border issues. The arrest eventually caused discontent among the people with the authorities[9]. These cases invariably affect the existing decision-making structures and the country’s leadership. The latter needs to take a neutral approach while considering cross-border issues to avoid any foreign policy implications.

Thirdly, Kyrgyzstan seeks to adhere to a constructive and friendly foreign policy in relation to neighboring countries[10]. This is largely due to common historical and cultural ties shared by countries in the region, along with being part of the same integration associations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and others. Also, countries have acquired the new nature of interstate relations in recent years, with the opening of borders by Uzbekistan, the inclusion of some countries in the region as EEU observer and the promotion of Belt and Road initiative by China. Of particular note is Uzbekistan’s foreign policy steps with the advent of President Mirziyov to the power that have brought important achievements in resolving the region’s border issues[11]. For example, the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Uzbekistan, in the fall of 2019, have agreed on an equivalent exchange of border territories, which seemed almost impossible for the two sides before that.[12] In this regard, the Kyrgyz government has to make certain compromises and have a balanced approach amid many challenges and obligations related to the use of common transboundary natural resources.[13] There is no doubt that mutual agreements of this kind help the government mitigate the difficulties in domestic politics, not only concerning cross-border disputes but border issues in general. 

The development is currently slowed down with the COVID-19 pandemic, when countries in the region, including Kyrgyzstan, have to take unprecedented measures to limit border crossings. The interaction of countries, particularly in cargo transportation and movement of goods, is being tested. For instance, with the first confirmed cases of COVID-19, Kazakhstan introduced restrictions on crossing its border. That certainly complicated things for freight carriers from Kyrgyzstan, although later the Kyrgyz Prime Minister affirmed that “there are agreements made with Kazakh colleagues on the unhindered movement of goods.”[14] We are aware that this problem is old with definite reasons for it,[15] yet, the situation with the pandemic testified the state’s unilateral decision making in emergencies and to what extent it depends on the actions of neighboring countries.

These factors indicate that the decisive will of the country’s leadership on border issues is likely to be a dependent variable on domestic and external circumstances. While being illusioned with high dependence of cross-border disputes’ settlement on the country’s leadership, the public must keep in mind the complex nature of policymaking on these issues. The latter requires equal consideration of both the national interests of Kyrgyzstan and its people and maintaining peaceful mutually beneficial relations with neighboring countries.

Illusion # 2: “High priority given to the border regions should solve problems”

Opinions like “giving particular attention” or “taking under special control” have involuntarily produced public expectations that to resolve cross-border issues, the government and other institutions should always propose separate approaches. Part of society is obsessed with the illusion that similar state policies and “liberal dreams” of peace along the border will really bid farewell to problems in border areas. In this sense, we need to recall what steps are being taken and what is a reality of it.

Giving a special status to certain border regions in Kyrgyzstan at the legislative level is one of the most important decisions over the past decade.[16]  The law accentuates the state’s activities to create conditions necessary to impede the migration outflow from border regions. This was to some extent facilitated by the study made on cross-border issues in the early 2010s. Local research studied the phenomenon of the so-called “creeping migration,” which “is used to determine the illegal purchase or rental of property and land from Kyrgyz citizens by citizens of neighboring countries and their reclamation of disputed territories. ”[17] Besides, this issue was identified as one of the factors for local tension back in 2011 in a national report on the peace and development analysis, which even recommended to develop comprehensive security policies.[18] The problem of this phenomenon lies in a demographic imbalance in the border areas, also mentioned in the 2015 Unified Report on Migration. The document presents data of 2.4 million and about 12 million people living in the neighboring Sogd region of Tajikistan and the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley, respectively, whereas the population of the Batken region was only 440 thousand people.[19] This, above all, affects the availability of scarce natural resources, instinctively leading to disputes on equal use from each side.

Security issues such as strengthening law enforcement and border guards can send a mixed message. There are huge efforts made in this direction both by the state’s own forces and international organizations’ support. On the one hand, understanding the serious sensitivity, the country’s leadership, with each border incident, promotes awareness-raising activities with the local population in conflict-prevention.[20] Likewise, the offices of international organizations and the local non-governmental sector, with donor support, are engaged in activities to promote peace and interaction in the border areas.[21] On the other hand, official authority’s statements and media reports are in some cases aimed at mutual accusations,[22] which, in turn, fuels the emotions and feelings of people, accompanied by extreme views sometimes.

Clashes in the border areas mostly take the form of domestic conflicts. However, the matter becomes more severe when “people in uniform with guns intervene justifying their actions by the fight for the sacred borders of their homeland”. These incidents take a whole new level, which is why we more than ever need general explicit rules governing the behavior of parties in such cases. ”[23] Therefore, the reality we are having today is an extreme sensitivity of the context. Any maneuvers associated with one-sided reasoning and appealing to emotions while drafting initiatives and policies will only be a trigger in border issues.

Other important aspects of the above illusion are land reclamation, improvement and infrastructure development, the creation of the environment for implementing cross-border trade. The state alone allocated 220 million soms for these purposes in 2018-2019.[24] Infrastructural development has a positive effect on the livelihoods of border communities until it involves disputed land. In many cases, this is the mediocre or direct cause of dissatisfaction on both sides and conflict situations. For example, a dispute over the land in Unkur-Too, where a TV tower was installed[25] and the construction of roads in the Batken region[26], which again rest on fundamental ambiguities between the neighboring states in certain border sections. We should not forget about the cross-border trade categorized as an inexplicable process along the borders.

Everyone knows that illegal trade at the border, especially of fuels and lubricants, seems to be living a life of its own.

Hence, the uncertainty in the border territories plays into the hands of smugglers, though after accession to the Eurasian Economic Union, Kyrgyzstan has been trying to follow accepted standards and act within the framework of the general rules to hinder illegal trade.[27] At the same time, we need to assess the situation in undecided areas and the functioning of huge trading venues in the borders, which can be considered either as indicators of developed trade or as “mechanisms” for illegal activities.

All this suggests that the actions taken within special approaches to the cross-border issue, in fact, have their own dilemmas. In practice, however, greater effort is made to combine tools for ensuring security and socio-economic development. Although everyone stresses out the importance of friendly cross-border cooperation initiatives, we need to recognize their ineffectiveness up until the promoted policies and programs will adapt to the local environment.

Conclusion and recommendations

There is a risk of being held captive by expectations and perceptions about resolutions to border issues. That might imply difficulties for the public and cross-border communities to accept the complex nature of things. The forecasts for border issues, therefore, will be challenging, considering not only the intensity of incidents in certain border zones but also the ongoing socio-political and socio-economic changes within and outside the country. The weak acceptance of reality in resolving the cross-border issues and relations with neighboring countries leave us with the following assumptions for border issue implications:

– the situation might force individual parties to take most of the responsibility on themselves, whereas the role of the state, let alone local authorities, will be significantly loosened. Local luminaries, businessmen, and others will play, in this case, a “central” role in resolving cross-border issues. Perhaps this phenomenon in the future will become traditional in the development of cross-border cooperation and settlement of issues in the legal field, while for these regions, this is fraught with a gradual loss of state control;

– an active or “distinct” support of the border regions, under the influence of the state and other institutions, might resume. The borderlands might end accustomed to dependency. Therefore, these regions should use their potential in any field or look for alternatives to socio-economic development;

– the state risks remaining a “hostage to the situation” during larger-scale challenges and dealing with unforeseen circumstances, primarily due to lack of interaction coordination with neighboring states.

This makes a comprehensive approach by the state to the border issues even more vital. The context determines the nature of work in any region: the remoteness of villages from district centers, the lack of basic life amenities and the powers of local authorities in these places, among others. The state and other institutions should address the linkage between the work done and the local environment. In that regard, we need to consider projecting the repercussions of staying amid the illusions and the reality of the border issues.

The search for new management ways of disputed areas and the earlier completion of their demarcation will remain among paramount tasks. That would solve most of the problems, and the border communities would be finally getting rid of uncertainty. But before that, increased interaction between stakeholders, including opinion makers in border zones, as well as policy coordination are the primary task. The latter encompasses the following recommendations:

– Approaches to any activity in border areas should be changed. Problems should be seen in the context of close participation of border communities’ representatives in determining the regional agenda;

– Activities to ensure security and socio-economic development should be subject to cross-monitoring (by joint efforts of the state and civil society and by involving local residents) to identify the degree of impact/lack of impact on the situation in relevant areas. This should help, on the one hand, to increase the transparency, accountability, and responsibility of governing bodies, on the other hand, to monitor changes in reality;

– further development of the partnership between local governments, central authority and civil society in promoting alternative visions for the distribution and use of allocated funds will uncover lessons learned that went unnoticed and best practices. This approach appears applicable to the relevant structures of neighboring countries, especially in light of emergency and crisis requiring distinguished state work in the prevention of force majeure situations at the border;

– initiate/conduct/update studies on changes in border issues and on the impact of security, infrastructure and natural resources management on the situation in the border regions, which will contribute to the information and analytical support of the territorial issues.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

[1] Vecherniy Bishkek, 03/11/2020, “Jeenbekov: Batken holds a special place in my heart”, https://www.vb.kg/doc/386082_jeenbekov:_batken_zanimaet_osoboe_mesto_v_moem_serdce.html ;

[2] See the Concept of Foreign Policy of the Kyrgyz Republic adopted by the Decree of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic of March 11, 2019 , http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/430045 ; National Development Strategy of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2018-2040, Presidential Decree dated October 31, 2018 No. 221, http://www.president.kg/en/sobytiya/12774_utverghdena_nacionalnaya_strategiya_razvitiya_kirgizskoy_respubliki_na_2018_2040_godi ;

[3] Reporter.kg, December 5, 2019, “How many conflicts were there on the border with Kyrgyzstan in 10 months of 2019?”, Http://ru.reporter.kg/skolko-konfliktov-proizoshlo-na-granitse-s- kyrgyzstanom-za-10-mesiatsev-2019-go-podrobnosti / ;

[4] See ibid;

[5] Komsomolskaya Pravda, 07/30/2019, “How Did the Presidents Resolve the Cross-Border Conflict,” https://www.kp.kg/daily/27008/4071081/ ;

[6]  Deutche Welle, 09/17/2019, “The border guards of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan joined a military clash”, https://bit.ly/3daY3vn ;

[7] 24.kg, 11.11.2019, “Residents of Batken region’s border villages established the PA“ Check ara “”, https://24.kg/obschestvo/134454_jiteli_prigranichnyih_sel_batkenskoy_oblasti_sozdali_oonbsplaquochek_araraquo/ ;

[8] Kaktus.media, 18/9/2019, “Madumarov responds to allegations on transferring bordering territory of Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan”, https://kaktus.media/doc/398017_madymarov_otvetil_na_obvineniia_v_tom_chto_otdal_prigranichnye_territorii_kr_tadjikistany.html ; White Sail, 09.09.2016, “The story of secretly “sold out ” lands: donated to the Uzbeks by Unkur-too, the middle Sogot, saddened Karkyra”, https://paruskg.info/glavnaya/135756-135756.html ;

[9]  Kloop.kg, 2/24/2020, “Behind Bars for Truth.” A single picket was held in Bishkek in support of the detained Batken deputy ”, https://kloop.kg/blog/2020/02/24/za-reshetku-za-pravdu-v-bishkeke-ustroili-odinochnyj-piket-v-podderzhku- zaderzhannogo-batkenskogo-deputata / ; 24.kg, 2.03.2020, “A rally in support of Sadyr Zhaparov. Participants demand for Saparali Borubaev’s freedom “, https://24.kg/obschestvo/145206_miting_vpodderjku_sadyira_japarova_uchastniki_prosyat_svobodu_saparali_borubaevu/ ;

[10]  See the Concept of Foreign Policy of the Kyrgyz Republic;

[11] Lenta.ru, 10/19/2019, “Unlimited threat”, https://lenta.ru/articles/2019/10/19/mir_bez_granic/ ; Slovo Kyrgyzstana, 08/14/2019, Interview with the head of the State Border Service of the Kyrgyz Republic “Homeland begins at the border”, https://slovo.kg/?p=109010 ;

[12] Eurasianet, “Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan exchange land in historic settlement”, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-uzbekistan-exchange-land-in-historic-settlement;

[13] See the List of Conventions and Agreements of the Interstate Commission on Sustainable Development, http://www.mkurca.org/documenty/international_agreements/ ;

[14] Kaktus Media, 03/16/2020, «What is up with truckers from Kyrgyzstan that are waiting to transit the  Kazakh border?», Https://kaktus.media/doc/408066_chto_s_dalnoboyshikami_kyrgyzstana_kotorye_jdyt_perehoda_na_granice_kazahstana.html 

[15] Azattyk, 01/09/2020, “Yet another lines of heavy trucks on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border”, https://rus.azattyk.org/a/30367567.html ; Kloop.kg, 10.19.2017, “Kyrgyz-Kazakh border: Losses of business and hopes of resolving the conflict”, https://kloop.kg/blog/2017/10/19/kyrgyzsko-kazahskaya-granitsa-ubytki-biznesa-i -nadezhdy-na-razreshenie-conflikta / ;

[16]  See the Law of the Kyrgyz Republic “On Giving Special Status to Certain Border Territories of the Kyrgyz Republic and Their Development” dated July 26, 2011 N 145;

[17] Demoscope Weekly, “Cross-border migration processes in southern Kyrgyzstan and their possible impact on interethnic relations,” Abazbek u. R., October 10 – 23, 2011, No. 481 – 482, http://www.demoscope.ru/weekly/2011/0481/analit03.php ;

[18] See the National Report on the Analysis of Peace and Development (Government of the Kyrgyz Republic, UNDP), 2011, pp. 17-18, p. 34;

[19] See the Unified Report on Migration 2015, https://bit.ly/3abE0ep ;

[20] Azattyk, January 11, 2020, “Sooronbai Jeenbekov discussed the situation on the border with the head of Tajikistan”, https://rus.azattyk.org/a/30371479.html ;

[21] See for reference: Vesti.kg, 01/22/2020, “Students from the border regions of Kyrgyzstan can receive a grant for the implementation of innovative social projects”, https://vesti.kg/obshchestvo/item/67949-shkolniki-iz-prigranichnykh -rajonov-kyrgyzstan-mogut-poluchit-grant-na-realizatsiyu-innovatsionnykh-sotsialnykh-proektov ; UNECE, “Cross-border cooperation in the Chu and Talas river basins”, https://www.unece.org/en/env/water/centralasia/chutalas/ru.html ; 24.kg, 03/10/2016, “The Government of Japan has allocated $ 2.6 million to strengthen cross-border cooperation in the fight against drugs,” https://24.kg/obschestvo/28909_pravitelstvo_yaponii_vyidelilo_26_milliona_na_ukreplenie_transgranichnogo_sotruvnicniv_arkotrvnivva_not; Projects of the International Tolerance Foundation, http://fti.kg/page/17/?option=com_jcomments&tmpl=component&lang ;

[22] New Reporter, July 24, 2019, “How did the Tajik and Kyrgyz media cover the conflict at the border?”, Https://newreporter.org/2019/07/24/kak-smi-tadzhikistana-i-kyrgyzstana-osveshhali-konflikt -na-granice / ; Kloop.kg, 09/17/2019, “Border service: The situation on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border is“ relatively stable ”, https://kloop.kg/blog/2019/09/17/pogransluzhba-situatsiya-na-kyrgyzsko-tadzhikskoj-granitse- otnositelno-stabilnaya / ;

[23] Asia Plus media group, 02.17.2014, Anna MATVEEVA: “The interests of ordinary people prevails the rest in this conflict!”, Https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20140217/anna-matveeva- glavnoe-v-etom-konflikte-zashchitit-interesy-prostykh-lyudei ;

[24] Kabar.kg, 10/15/2019, “Achievements of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2018-2019: State budget and infrastructure projects”, http://kabar.kg/news/dostizheniia-kr-za-2018-2019-gody-gosbiudzhet- i-infrastrukturnye-proekty / ;

[25] Kloop.kg, 03.24.2016, “Mount Ungar-Too: Kyrgyz, Uzbek or disputed?”, Https://kloop.kg/blog/2016/03/24/televyshka-v-aksy-kyrgyzskaya-uzbekskaya -ili-spornaya / ;

[26] Cabar, 3/14/2019, “The Road of Contention. The Authorities of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Begin Negotiations After a Border Conflict”, https://cabar.asia/ru/doroga-razdora-vlasti-kyrgyzstan-i-tadzhikistana-nachinayut-peregovory-posle-prigranichnogo-konflikta/ ;

[27] Kabar.kg, 01/27/2020, “Abylgaziev: We will bring the fight against smuggling to the system level”, http://kabar.kg/news/abylgaziev-bor-bu-s-kontrabandoi-my-vyvedem-na- sistemnyi-uroven /

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