The utterly lack of obvious natural barriers from one end of the Farg’ona Valley to the other belies a fiendishly complex system of territory division that carve up the flat expanse in defiance of geography, infrastructure, migration patterns, and logic. A mere 25 years ago, the Farg’ona Valley was traversable from Xujand to Jalal-Abat without obstructions of any kind, a situation enabled by the free movement allowed within the constituent republics of the USSR and reflected in the crumbling infrastructure of the modern republics. Even since the deteriorating security situation in Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic raised the prospect of armed groups operating across the still porous borders — a danger highlighted by high profile kidnappings in Batken in 1999 — Uzbekistan has been the primary force in constructing and enforcing borders in the Farg’ona Valley, setting up arduous requirements for entry and trade, and even resorting to extreme measures such as land mines to prevent illegal crossings in high altitude areas. As pointed out by the Center for Preventive Action in their visit to the Valley, the intense securitization of the borders has caused numerous hardships to befall the already disadvantaged communities of the Farg’ona Valley, particularly those living in the border towns of Osh and Xujand. Under the temporary administration of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the norm of strict border control that has lasted for nearly two decades appears to be eroding as the caretaker government has taken tentative steps towards normalizing border relations between Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic.
The borders of the Farg’ona Valley have been a contentious issue for at least the mid-1990s, largely as a consequence of the political discontent generated by the severance of previously tightly-knit networks of commerce and production linking the Valley in the Soviet period. Just as the most loving marriages turn into the most bitter divorces, when the bonds of friendship and brotherhood that bound Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic together were sundered by fear, all of that love turned to bile and was channeled into the present international disputes over previously intercommunal issues. These previously close ties are reflected in the utter insanity of borders in the Valley, as all major road and rail networks — save the newly built railway between Angren in Toshkent province and Pop in Namangan province, designed specifically to avoid the insane infrastructure network crisscrossing the rest of the Valley — cross at least one heavily policed international border, with Xujand in particular acting as a chokepoint, imposing a heavy cost on trade and business in the region. Energy and population flows make just as little sense when compared to the present international borders: electric networks cross international lines, with both Tajikistanis in Xujand and Kyrgyz across the South forced to depend on Uzbekistani gas plants for power, and the sudden imposition of borders on previously administrative boundaries split families between two or three countries. All of these factors make the current border regimes in the Farg’ona Valley an onerous burden on the population by severely undercutting the efficiency of every aspect of economy and society in the Valley.
For the past two decades, any cross-border transit has been severely restricted, particularly by Uzbekistani authorities, who fear both of their unstable eastern neighbors as sources of dissent and radicalism imperiling stability in Uzbekistan. Despite the vast number of merchants who sustain themselves on transborder trade, the process for moving goods between the neighboring republics requires arduous paperwork — especially in Uzbekistan, which requires that all import shipments have a contract signed by the importer registered with the border service in addition to other licenses and permits — substantial cash reserves to pay bribes as not be unnecessarily detained at the border, and the time to wait in long queues both in visa offices and at the border posts themselves. The border is only slightly more navigable for those visiting family on the other side, as they still need properly organized and stamped papers as well as the hours needed for the wait on the crowded border crossings. Moreover, Uzbekistani officers in particular have been known to refuse entry to those without official business in Uzbekistan, turning aside family members on the pretext that they might be visiting terrorists or criminal elements as opposed to family members. On top of all these daily tribulations associated with border crossing, Uzbekistan occasionally shuts its borders to all newcomers as a security measure preceding major public events, like international summits or certain national holidays, halting all international commerce for days or weeks at a time.
In such a constrained environment, where new economic and social connections have had to be rebuilt inside national boundaries due to the sheer difficulty of maintaining these networks across borders that are heavily policed on one side and deeply and exploitatively corrupt on the other, the recent reforms undertaken by Uzbekistan’s interim President provide hope for finally healing the wounds that the Farg’ona Valley accumulated in the tumult of the 1990s. Within the first weeks of his interim administration, Mr. Mirziyoyev demonstrated that he has willing to take a more conciliatory stance towards border issues than the Karimov administration, forcing the state Border Guards to withdraw from the contested Ungar-Too mountain on 19 September following successful dialogues with the Kyrgyz President and Prime Minister. Mr. Mirziyoyev has followed up this ‘reset’ of Uzbekistani-Kyrgyz relations with more decisive and radical moves towards solving the animosity with the Kyrgyz Republic. On 4 October, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic, along with a governmental delegation including the mayors of Jalal-Abat and Osh, both towns rocked by ethnic violence during both the Tulip Revolution and the 2010 civil unrest, visited Andijon for the first time since emergency peace talks in 2010. Such a move would have been unthinkable only months before — the invitation of the mayors of Osh and Jalal-Abat being especially surprising considering the popular distrust of these men in Toshkent following the widespread assaults on Uzbeks in these areas during the 2010 riots — and demonstrates the commitment of Mr. Mirziyoyev to securing peace and stability in the run-up to his bid for the presidency.
This resumption of official relations was followed later than week by the reopening of the Do’stlik (Friendship) border crossing between Andijon and Osh, which has been closed since Uzbekistan deployed troops along the border in 2010 to prevent the communal violence in the Kyrgyz Republic from escalating and spreading into retaliatory violence across the Valley. In additional the immense and obvious symbolism of such a gesture, with Uzbekistan quite literally reopening the gate to ‘friendship’ with the Kyrgyz Republic, this move will help reduce the congestion between Andijon and Osh, previously served by a single border control station. In an additional act of official charity, likely designed to win votes in Uzbekistan and sympathy in Bishkek, the new border post was instructed to begin accepting wedding invitations and marriage certificates are registered documents for border crossing, allowing families to attend weddings on the other side of the border without necessitating the long and expensive visa procurement process. The reopening of the border point, closed originally to deal with a temporary situation of humanitarian emergency, is long over due and signals the willingness of the interim government and Mr. Mirziyoyev to overlook past issues with the Kyrgyz, sending a signal to all of its neighbors that the new post-Karimov Uzbekistan will be a trustworthy partner and that its new leaders, quite possibly Mr. Mirziyoyev, should be supported by the regional establishment.
Despite the short tenure of his caretaker government, Mr. Mirziyoyev has also laid the groundwork for a resolution of longstanding political issues with the Kyrgyz Republic by significantly expanded the level of interest with which Uzbekistan is approaching border demarcation in the Farg’ona Valley. Although discussions on demarcation have been a regular affair for years, no substantial progress has been made since the late 1990s, a situation reinforced by Uzbekistan’s consistent use of military force to settle border disputes in the absence of successful negotiation. The change of heart in negotiations is immediately manifest, whereas negotiations in Jalal-Abat in 2014 only discussed the border disputes in that area — the Uzbekistani delegates apparently refused to consider discussing the Sox and Shaximardan exclaves, a point of particular tension, until all other border issues had been resolved — the scope of discussion in 2016 alone has increased from the consideration of 23 disputed areas in September to discussions on all 55 disputed areas, including the politically-sensitive exclaves between Farg’ona City and Batken. No official demarcations have resulted from these negotiations as of yet, and almost certain will not in the next year as neither Mr. Mirziyoyev nor Mr. Atambayev wants to risk losing the nationalist vote due to border concessions so close to the presidential elections, in December 2016 and mid-2017, respectively.
These changes to the border control regimes in the Farg’ona Valley have already had a positive effect on the lives of civilians living on both sides of the border, and the new frameworks for cooperation promise more welcome changes in the future. The immediate steps of reopening the Do’stlik border crossing and allowing wedding invitations — even unnotarized ones! — to be accepted as valid cause for crossing into Uzbekistan have undoubtedly made a significant impact in the quality of life for the 700,000 people split between Osh and Andijon. For the large numbers of merchants crossing the border everyday to sell their Uzbekistani wares in the Kyrgyz Republic or visa-versa the additional checkpoint will perhaps halve what would otherwise be an hours-long wait at what had previously been the only border crossing point within a two hour drive of Osh. The changes will be even more welcome among the divided families of the border region, who will be able to reestablish connections with relatives they had previously been prevented from seeing for perhaps years at a time. The anger at the draconian border measures has been palpable for a while, among those persons frustrated at the sheer insanity of being unable to visit family a mere hour a way because governments in distant Toshkent and Bishkek cannot get along. The dialogue established by Mr. Mirziyoyev, as well as the working group on border demarcation, promise the further amelioration of conditions near the border, heralding a stop to the military lockdowns, Kafkaesque bureaucratic procedure, and pervasive distrust that for too long has characterized the lives of hundreds of thousands in the Farg’ona Valley.
Mr. Mirziyoyev has undertaken these high profile and popular measures to liberalize borders in the Farg’ona Valley in an attempt to win greater support for his presidential candidacy in the Farg’ona Valley, a traditionally conservative and discontented region. This limited goal is clearly demonstrated in the short-term and immediate measures he has enacted: reopening a border station, allowing families to visit without official visa paperwork, and promising to remove the requirement for export contracts to be registered with the Border Service within the next month. All of these measures will noticeably benefit the lives of Uzbekistani citizens living near the border in the months before the presidential election, however none of them address the root problem of life in the Farg’ona Valley, namely that the Soviet-era system of transnational infrastructure either needs to be reconstituted within republican borders — a project Uzbekistan has been pursuing since the mid-2000s and partially realized with the Pop-Angren railway — or restored by comprehensive cooperation between regional authorities in Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan. Unsurprisingly, Uzbekistan has not yet taken any steps towards establishing joint committees on electricity, heating, water resources, emergency relief, or other issues in desperate need of cooperation. Unlike the simple and immediate measures taken to placate voters, these reforms would be lengthy, boring, and appeal to a limited audience. If Mr. Mirziyoyev is serious about improving the conditions of life in the Farg’ona Valley, he would pursue these measures after becoming President. In the meantime, however, while his candidacy remains contested, Mr. Mirziyoyev seems to be sticking to policy designed to win votes, not transform nations.
These measures have not only been for the benefit of Uzbekistani citizens, as the over-the-top spectacle during the visit of the Kyrgyz delegation to Andijon demonstrates, gestures of peace and reconciliation have also been directed towards wowing Uzbekistan’s neighbors, and convincing Mr. Atambayev and the Kyrgyz government that an Uzbekistan under Shavkat Mirziyoyev would be a strong and reliable partner in the region. Mr. Mirziyoyev’s public support in Uzbekistan relies for the most part on the belief, encouraged by Mr. Mirziyoyev, that he represents a continuation of the stability that Uzbekistan had enjoyed under the Karimov government. A major incident, either domestic or international, could upset this perception and send freightened voters flooding into the camps of rival candidates. This logic underscores all of the limited foreign policy undertaken by his interim government, with the overtures of peace towards the Kyrgyz Republic designed to prevent any conflict that could ruin his electoral chance at home. The Kyrgyz Republic has shown itself to be relatively aware of this weakness and it certainly playing the same game as Mr. Mirziyoyev. Considering the power that the Kyrgyz government holds to influence Uzbekistani politics by ‘making a scene’ in the Farg’ona Valley, Mr. Mirziyoyev has had to decisively convince the Kyrgyz government that a Mirziyoyev administration would be far more beneficial for Bishkek than a government under Sarvar Otamuratov or Hamatjon Ketmonov. The success of recent talks seems to indicate that Mr. Mirziyoyev has managed to win the support of Bishkek, but it is unclear to what degree this relationship will continue after the elections in December.
Although long-term prospects depend on the attitude and ideology of the next president of Uzbekistan, whoever that may be, some predictions can be made about international relations in the Farg’ona Valley in the months after a hypothetical victory by Mr. Mirziyoyev. In the medium-term, a Mirziyoyev government would likely continue the progress towards normalizing and liberalizing border relations with the Kyrgyz Republic, possibly including Tajikistan in the process as well, although the lack of central government control in Xujand complicates that situation. Even after winning the election and inheriting the formidable security apparatus of the Uzbekistani state, Mr. Mirziyoyev’s mandate to rule will still largely derive from popular support based in a promise of domestic security and regional stability. This means that the Kyrgyz Republic will still have a significant amount of power to make life difficult for the fledging government by causing an international incident. Although a Mirziyoyev government could handle that threat on its own, the sequence of domestic reforms that Mr. Mirziyoyev has pursued thus far will be likely to earn him the animosity of some of the most powerful political figures in Uzbekistan, including Maj. Gen. Inoyatov of the MXX, a number of Ministers, including the powerful Elyor G’aniev, and the bellicose Commander of the Border Guards, Maj. Gen. Rustam Eminjanov — whom Mr. Mirziyoyev had to spend a period of days convincing to actually withdrawal troops from the disputed Ungar-Too mountain in September. If these reforms continue under a Mirziyoyev government, and there is no reason to believe that they will not, or Mr. Mirziyoyev return to his habit of firing corrupt regional officials en mass following victory, the first years of his administration would be characterized by a weakness and vulnerability to outside pressure just because so many powerful forces in Uzbekistani officialdom would be united against him. For fearing of the additional political pressure that the Kyrgyz Republic could create — I purposefully omit mention of Tajikistan because they are largely unable to exert this kind of pressure, a consequence of lacking control over Xujand — a Mirziyoyev government would almost certainly continue along the path of conciliation and reform.
Lubin, Nancy, Sam Nunn & Barnett R. Rubin. “Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the Heart of Central Asia”. Vol. 4 of Preventive Action Reports. New York: Center for Preventive Actions, 1999.