Clare Nuttall in Astana
January 22, 2013
After 34 Kyrgyz nationals were taken hostage by residents of the Uzbek Sokh enclave, Bishkek and Tashkent took steps to smooth over the January incident. But with the borders to the tiny enclave having to be closed and nearby Kyrgyz villages cut off from the outside world, the threat of further clashes remains, which could have a destabilising effect on the whole volatile and ethnically mixed Fergana Valley region.
Sokh, a small island of Uzbekistani territory within southwest Kyrgyzstan's Batken region, is the largest of several enclaves in the Fergana Valley and an occasional flashpoint for small-scale ethnic clashes. The recent incident erupted on January 5 when Sokh residents, angered by Kyrgyz border guards putting up pylons near the border without permission, attacked a border station and passing cars and buses, taking 34 hostages in the process. The Kyrgyz army blocked access to Sokh on the following nights to prevent thousands of Kyrgyz from invading the enclave in retaliation.
The hostages have since been released, but the head of the Batken regional government, Zhenish Razakov, announced on January 10 that "hotbeds of tension" remain, 24.kg reported. "This is not the last conflict in the frontier zone of Kyrgyzstan, the situation is far from stable," Razakov warned.
Remnants of the past
Sokh and several other smaller enclaves owe their existence to long-term land leases agreed when the region was part of the Soviet Union, divided between the Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). At that time, it was not unusual for land in one SSR to be leased to collective farms based in the neighbouring republic or for tracts of land to be exchanged. But this informal arrangement became a problem when the internal borders suddenly became international frontiers in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up. Minor disputes around Sokh and other enclaves are frequent, with triggers including cattle grazing rights, access to water and ad hoc border closures.
The main road from Batken runs through Sokh, meaning the region's residents have to pass two international borders to get anywhere else in Kyrgyzstan. The only alternative is the gravel track around the enclave, where cars and lorries churn up choking clouds of dust and few escape without at least one puncture. This has contributed to the extreme poverty in Batken, Kyrgyzstan's poorest region where around one-third of the population were living on under €5 a day, according to a 2010 World Bank report. Although it has managed to avoid conflict on the scale of the ethnic violence in Osh and Jalalabad in 2010, the area has seen many smaller clashes between the Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek populations.
Jozef Lang of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) points out that the recent incident is the first time when ethnic conflict in the region has overlapped with mutual animosity between the two countries. "Ethnic conflicts had previously concerned almost exclusively citizens of Kyrgyzstan of various ethnic backgrounds. The border crossing by Uzbek people and bringing hostages to Uzbek territory has brought a new quality and this – given the tense relations between the two countries and their mutual distrust – may have dangerous consequences in the future," Lang says.
The governments of both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have shown a willingness to resolve the conflict at the national level, with the two countries planning a joint investigation. Tashkent has started paying compensation to victims of the violence, according to reports in the Kyrgyz press. "The situation between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments seems to have calmed, but within Kyrgyzstan there seem to be some tensions between the local population and the national government," says Eugene Chausovsky, director of analysis for the former Soviet Union and Europe at Stratfor. "There remain other serious issues, namely the closure of the border and getting clean water, electricity and other key goods into the area."
The closure of the borders around Sokh has isolated both the enclave of some 55,000 people, and nearby Kyrgyz villages. While Bishkek has promised to speed up construction of a new access road, this won't help in the shorter term. On January 14, a state of emergency was declared in five Kyrgyz villages that were cut off from the outside world and began receiving helicopter airlifts of food and other essentials.
Residents of nearby villages have staged several demonstrations demanding compensation. Long-term border closures would have a more serious impact on the standard of living and the economy of the region, which raises the threat of further violence. "The Fergana Valley is no stranger to such incidents, most of which start out locally. Most die down, but occasionally they have the potential to spread into something worse," warns Chausovsky. "The likelihood of this particular conflict erupting into something more serious seems to be dwindling. But if the local population doesn't get access to food, water and electricity within the next few days, I think we can see the potential for protests or even violence to occur."
Dealing with Sokh has become the latest challenge for Kyrgyz Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev's government, with several MPs calling for Satybaldiyev to resign after he failed to attend a parliament session on the issue. The government is having to scramble to resolve the highly complicated situation in the volatile south, where the threat of a new outbreak of ethnic conflict has again taken attention from the country's pressing economic issues.