The Fergana Valley, a fertile region at the heart of Central Asia split between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, has long been the focus of research that stresses the multiple security threats originating from and developing within the region. Among them, border issues and the problems of enclaves are constantly regarded as a highly destabilizing factor. Recent clashes at the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have highlighted the issue once more, but one should carefully consider all factors before reaching simplistic conclusions about the valley’s security threats.
Border delimitation in the Valley has taken place predominantly - but incompletely - during the early Soviet era, mainly in the 1920s and 1950s, with successive changes over the course of the rest of the Soviet domination. At the end of the process, the Valley appeared as a geographic puzzle characterized by numerous exclaves and a practically universal lack of coincidence between ethnic, political and natural borders. Moreover, since repeated revisions of borders between Soviet republics left uncertainty over the actual position of the borders, each country now refers to different Soviet maps for its own advantage.
A timeline of recent tensions
The result of unclear border definition has been a constant series of minor and major clashes taking place in and around the major enclaves. These events are frequently pointed out as potential sources of more serious, large-scale interethnic conflict, often regarded as somehow unavoidable.
The latest case has taken place in Jan. 2014 when Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards clashed near Vorukh, a Tajik exclave inside Kyrgyzstan, leaving eight people wounded and the relations between the two countries strained. The reason for the clashes was disagreement over a planned road that would allow Kyrgyz citizens to circumvent the enclave to reach neighbouring villages. Tajiks contend that the road would pass on their territory and hamper their access to grazing land. The same issue had already led to clashes last year, in April and late May. Elsewhere in the valley, tensions have been registered around the Uzbek exclave of Sokh, inside Kyrgyzstan, where disagreements over resources distribution caused clashes in January last year. In September 2012, small groups of Tajik and Uzbek guards shoot each other along the border of the two countries in the Valley, leaving one Uzbek guard severely injured.
Looking to the not-so-remote past to understand current tensions
Is Soviet border demarcation responsible?
Border tensions have often been described as the outcome of an arbitrary “divide and rule” process carried out by the Soviets, who more or less intentionally created administrative divisions that would later become real obstacles to movement of people.
Actually the Soviet border definition process - although based on an idea alien to Central Asia like nation-based demarcation - was less arbitrary than commonly thought: the Soviets tried to balance more-or-less artificial ethnic divisions with other priorities such as economic integration. Furthermore, as leading expert Nick Megoran points out, when Soviet cartographers draw the demarcation line they could hardly imagine that those would one day become real borders between nation states. Since “it was expected that national sentiment would eventually wither away”, cartographers split the valley having in mind an integrated economic reality.
With independence came the establishment of real borders, but these did not immediately become obstacles to people movement. Rather, borders remained for several years areas of relatively free interchange of people and goods, less easy to cross than in Soviet times but not as problematic as they are nowadays.
Regime survival priorities in Uzbekistan
This changed in 1999-2000, after Uzbek president Islam Karimov launched a “border sealing” policy: the border (including that of Uzbek exclaves) was closed and controls became strict. Large portions of the border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were even mined, which caused (and still causes) casualties among Tajik and Kyrgyz citizens who more or less inadvertently step on minefields in poorly demarcated border areas.
Several reasons drove this dramatic change. At the time, Uzbekistan was implementing autarchic economic policies, which required very high control on its borders to succeed. Another cornerstone of Uzbek economic policy at the time, the non-convertibility of its national currency, also required border control to prevent excessive circulation of capitals and goods. More important perhaps was the Uzbek regime’s security concern resulting from the Tashkent bombings in 1999, which the government blamed on Islamist forces. Tighter border control was seen as necessary to prevent infiltration from Islamists and protect the regime.
According to Megoran, other crucial regime-survival priorities drove Uzbekistan’s border policies: the border was used by Karimov as a tool in an official national discourse in which Uzbekistan was seen as a land of peace and prosperity and its ruler as the defender of these values against the “chaos” of a threatening outside world. This was extremely important to justify Karimov’s heavy-handed rule as the only way to guard the country from insecurity. Therefore, the border had to become a “moral” boundary between good and evil, to be closely guarded against external influences. The needs of people living in border regions could be subordinated to the need to bolster national identity and regime legitimization. Unsurprisingly, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where regime legitimacy depends on different discourses, did not implement such policies and have actually tried, although often unsuccessfully, a more collaborative approach.
Current situation and future trends
The main issue remains Uzbekistan’s strict approach to border policy. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have adopted a more relaxed approach, successfully defining more than 50% of their Fergana border, but this does not prevent tensions along the border. Although clashes are far more often reported about, local people actually experience a mix of cross-border economic interaction and competition over scarce resources, especially water, agricultural and pasture land (as in the recent case in Vorukh). The situation is more complex than the simple rhetoric of “imminent conflict” implies: there is actually room for collaboration between local communities and whenever there is political will, it is possible to strengthen this framework and minimize the risks. What is more, it is clear when looking at the reasons behind border clashes that tensions accumulate because of very practical concerns such as resources scarcity, rather than ethnic rivalry itself.
Building walls: worrying trends in 2013-2014
It is however possible that the situation will worsen in 2014. The scheduled NATO pullout and the fear of security threats spillover from Afghanistan is already causing a flourishing of border posts along practically all demarcation lines between the Central Asian republics. Kyrgyzstan is especially active in reversing a previous trend of relatively relaxed border control and is busy building fences, observation points and additional border checks to catch up with neighbouring countries, whose border forces vastly outnumber its own. Tajikistan is also strengthening its border control capabilities (Not surprisingly, Uzbekistan does not seem to be much affected by this trend, primarily because it has already closed all what it could close long time ago).
The obvious impact of this trend will be a further exacerbation of tensions along the borders, especially in contested areas and enclaves, as micro-level economic collaboration between local communities becomes more difficult an less likely to act as a counterbalancing factor against scarce resources competition.
Another border to become a tool in nation building?
A further factor that may make border collaboration more challenging in the mid- to long-term is Tajikistan’s own nationalism. As we saw, Uzbekistan’s attempt to promote a nationalist and ideological discourse is one of the elements making border control so strict. Tajikistan is also implementing a similar discourse based on a radical idea of ethno-racial as well as cultural superiority. Concepts such as the “Aryan-ness” of the Persian-speaking Tajik nation, seen in opposition to non-“Aryan” peoples in neighbouring Turkic speaking countries, feature prominently in Tajik propaganda. This can only make collaboration between border communities more difficult by promoting an idea of irreconcilable ethnic division. Moreover, there is a possibility that as it happened in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan may also at some point come to see the border as a tool to strengthen its nationalist ideology; the result would be increased border paranoia and subsequent issues for local people.
Rather than blaming the issues in Fergana’s border areas on the Soviet border demarcation or on “ethnic differences” per se, one should actually look at the practical concerns of local people over scarcity of resources and, even more importantly, at the impact of precise, contingent and reversible political choices taken since independence, especially when regime survival in Uzbekistan is concerned. The way the Soviets devised the borders was indeed likely to cause trouble but it was the choices of independent states that triggered the “trap”. Even the ethnic factor is largely the result of precise nation building policies and its disruptive potential depends on how the ethnic discourse is developed by local authorities. All these factors are political, which implies that there is a possibility to reach an agreement on borders management based on collaboration. Unfortunately, the current trend seems to be heading in the opposite direction.
Fabio Belafatti, Coordinator of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asian Studies (Vilnius University, Oriental Studies Centre) and lecturer of Central Asian Politics