Uzbekistan’s Pivot to Regional Engagement

Nowhere is Uzbekistan's constant juggling act between advancing national security interests and producing much-needed economic growth so readily apparent as at its long Ferghana Valley border. Foreign policy under the authoritarian former president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, often seemed to prefer economic and political isolation over collaboration with regional neighbors, resulting in miles of mined borders and simmering tensions. Thus, it was quite the surprise when newly-minted Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev declared to the UN in 2017 that he would be re-orienting Uzbekistan’s foreign policy to better create “a zone of stability, sustainable development, and good-neighborliness” in the region.

This announcement has given rise to a series of previously unthinkable treaties and agreements with Uzbekistan’s neighbors, primarily aimed at addressing the numerous issues surrounding Uzbekistan’s borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Some of these agreements will undoubtedly lead to the betterment of citizens’ lives in the area, but how high should hopes be for the “reset” of these borders? A careful analysis suggests that it is too soon for Mirziyoyev’s government to back up its lofty statements; economic imperatives are driving positive changes at the border, but the political and security realities of the country will prevent a true opening of borders and free movement of peoples of which the Uzbek president has hinted.

The sad history of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana border was born out of the chaos following the declaration of independence from the USSR in 1991. Many books have been written on the drawing of the often-arbitrary borders separating the five Soviet Central Asian republics, and it is perhaps no surprise that Uzbek authorities did not initially show a strong interest in stationing troops at their new international borders. Tajik citizen Sonya Satarova put it best in an interview with BBC Russia, recalling that, “the borders were open back then, nobody could have imagined that there would come a time when we can’t see each other whenever we want.” The border would remain loosely-manned and highly permeable through the mid-1990s.

This dynamic changed for the worse in late 1998 and early 1999. Bridges were destroyed, transport lines cut, and scores of border crossing points shut. Uzbek leaders publicly articulated the crackdown as a measure to protect against terrorism. In 1999, a series of bombings rocked Tashkent, and President Karimov blamed his political and personal enemies, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Alternatively, this radical change in border policy can also be attributed to local political and economic interests. Informal shuttle trade across a permeable border was a potential drain of hard currency that the regime was intent on retaining, as well as a threat to nascent domestic production and trade. Uzbekistan was determined to weather the economic storm that overtook the region after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and leaders prioritized strong state control of the economy over the potentially destabilizing effects of foreign markets.

Finally, as academics Megoran, Raballand, and Boyjou point out, the creation of “the border” as a concept was crucial to Karimov’s nationalization efforts. Forging an Uzbekistan that is both simultaneously strong yet also threatened by external enemies was an active priority of the government, with a lot of public discourse directed towards demonizing the new neighbors in the valley. Karimov’s public statement in 1999, that “Kyrgyzstan is a poor country, and it is not my job to look after the people,” perfectly illustrates this new paradigm. Even more indicative of this strong vs. weak dichotomy was the decision to seal Ferghana Valley borders literally days after the Tashkent bombings.

As these borders hardened, they became the fronts of cold and occasionally hot conflicts. Uzbek involvement in the Tajik Civil War in support of the opponents of eventual Tajik President Rahmon Emomali began a cycle of antipathy that would lead to both governments eventually installing mines along their shared border. The ill-defined border with Kyrgyzstan similarly proved problematic. Uzbekistan’s preoccupation with domestic terror led to operatives kidnapping opposition leaders off Kyrgyz sovereign territory, as well as targeting the terrorist groups that Uzbek authorities claimed were infiltrating from the relatively-lax Kyrgyz borders. Both countries have even gone as far as passing legislation creating volunteer militias to assist in monitoring the border.

It is within the context of these tense border situations that the recent developments associated with Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s young presidency have seemed so groundbreaking. On September 5, 2017, the presidents of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan signed documents demarcating 1170 kilometers of the border, around 80% of the total. Both sides additionally pledged to continue working on the remaining disputed sections, as well as indicating that they hope to increase bilateral trade to over $500 million. Crucially, the long-restricted Do’stlik/Dostuk border crossing between Uzbek Andijan and Kyrgyz Osh was finally re-opened. In a statement that would have sounded absurd even a couple of years ago, Mirziyoyev stated that “we will turn our border into a border of friendship.”

The story has been similarly positive between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with the lower house of the Tajik Parliament ratifying an agreement on March 19, 2018 to introduce a visa-free program that will allow for stays of up to 30 days for citizens of the two countries. Ten new border crossing points have been opened, up from a previous two continuously-operating international border crossing points. Agreements were similarly reached to have the border completely de-mined by 2019, and to demarcate a large portion of it.

On a purely human level, these agreements have been monumental. With ethnic Uzbeks making up around 15% of Kyrgyzstan’s population and ethnic Tajiks accounting for as much of 30% of Uzbekistan’s population, over the past twenty years cross-border family relationships have been severely restricted as a result of the closed borders. Known to locals as “telegrams,” permits to cross the border were previously almost impossible to obtain. Now, a passport from either country is all that is needed to cross the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, while the Tajik-Uzbek 30-day stay is similarly game-changing for visiting relatives.

Cross-border trade has been a key aspect of this border reset, with the closed border previously strangling economic opportunities for communities on either side of the border. Visa costs and costs of transportation through treacherous mountain passes had previously decreased the viability of cross-border trade. Now, however, according to Kyrgyz border officials, up to 18,000 people were crossing the Dostuk BCP daily in June 2018.

The re-opening of access to local bazaars will hopefully stimulate trade. But it remains to be seen if Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union will significantly hurt the important re-export of goods from China in regional bazaars (accounting for almost $2 billion of trade in 2006). Even more promising is the 2017 Uzbek legislation “On Measures to Further Streamline the Foreign Economic Activity of the Republic of Uzbekistan” that lowered custom duties on more than 8,000 imported goods, with the average customs rate reduced to around 6.45%.

While it is tempting to be swept up in the euphoria of a moment that seems to represent a regional “end of history,” the speed and breadth of these developments should come with significant caveats. As many Central Asia watchers have pointed out, this opening up of Uzbekistan seems to be primarily oriented towards immediate economic relief of a moribund and dysfunctional public and private sector. Uzbek attitudes towards security, economics, and politics cannot be ignored, and need to be considered when analyzing the future of this reset.

While the low-hanging fruit of border demarcation has already been agreed upon by lawmakers from both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the remaining thorny 15% of the border (including enclaves) has been kicked down the road for further consideration. These areas have been subject to extreme tensions, and the arithmetic of aging populations combined with a lack of access to resources and economic opportunities means that these areas are still ticking time bombs that could erupt at any second. While lack of political will on the part of the Karimov government had resulted in the lack of general progress on border demarcation, the actual sticking points on the border are still subject to the relentless logic of security dilemmas and geopolitics.

President Mirziyoyev addressed these concerns with the stunning comment, “We should not have borders [with Kyrgyzstan] and we should go forward on a completely different level.” Unfortunately, there are few viable alternatives. Straight land swaps are unlikely to work in such a populated area, and it is notoriously difficult to create reliable land corridors that do not negatively impact other transportation routes. An exchange of exclave for exclave is not particularly workable, as there is a large imbalance in population (50,000 Uzbeks in the Sokh exclave, and about 75 Kyrgyz citizens living in the Barak exclave).

The situation regarding terrorist attacks originating beyond the borders of Uzbekistan remains grim. It would be a stretch to stay that Kyrgyzstan has improved its capability to prevent infiltration by international criminal or terrorist organizations, which has been a long-standing complaint of the Uzbek government. Similarly, the recent killing of tourists in Tajikistan points to active terrorist organizations in the area, while Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens continue to supply large numbers of fighters for international terrorist organizations such as ISIS. The liberalization of borders seems to invite the instability and cross border threats that the original closing of borders was designed to prevent. Thus, we are left with two options: either the Uzbek government is desperate enough to open its borders to the instability that it has long feared, or publicly-articulated fears of terrorism were meant to function more as an ideological function than a tactical one.

While the heightened security risks entailed by the former could weigh heavily on the country, the latter scenario is perhaps even more dangerous for Uzbekistan. As articulated by scholars like Joseph Nevins in his study of the Clinton-era “Operation Gatekeeper” border operation, the militarization of a border is a powerful tool for increasing the perceived strength of a government. In a period when Uzbekistan seems to be intent on fostering economic reform while not losing control of its long-suffering population, the erosion of an important ideological institution like the border can negatively impact the perceived control of the state. It remains to be seen how far President Mirziyoyev will push his economic agenda if it appears to endanger the social status quo.

Indeed, the militarized legacy of the border continues to claim victims. The tragic case of Farhad Myrzakulov illustrates a continued aggressive atmosphere at the border, despite the raft of positive rhetoric on the legislative level. Upon allegedly trying to illegally cross the border back into Kyrgyzstan after visiting an aunt on April 7, 2018, the 34-year-old was shot in the heart by Uzbek border guards. While both Kyrgyz and Uzbek border forces agreed to commit to better communication, it does not inspire confidence in the narrative of a border that is simply falling away.

While the movement of peoples across more open borders is likely to facilitate connections between close but long-isolated populations, it will also allow for larger scale movement of economic migrants. Tajikistan has more than 1.5 million of its citizensworking in Russia, and Uzbekistan has been one of the historical land routes for guest workers to reach Russia. This movement will only increase as the visa regime eases between the two countries, but the Uzbek government is unlikely to tolerate a larger influx of potentially disruptive migrant workers.

Finally, there is the basic question of whether border liberalization will continue at its current pace. As we discussed earlier, the movement of goods from Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan can represent a threat to Uzbek domestic producers. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, the loss of Chinese re-export business after entering the Eurasian Economic Union has led to an attempt to boost domestic production, with the net result that Kyrgyz businesses are looking to Uzbekistan as a new market. This represents a threat to a traditionally protectionist country like Uzbekistan, which is attempting to jump-start its own production.

On July 1, 2018, Uzbekistan brought new restrictions into effect that limited day laborers to bringing in a single good per month for “personal use” along the Kyrgyz border. This has dramatically impacted the shuttle trade, with the daily amount of people crossing daily at Dostuk being cut in half, down to under 9,000. This is not a sign of a whole-hearted embrace of free trade, but a continual process involving stop-start movements towards using trade with neighboring countries to kick-start a moribund economy.

The border is the first and last manifestation of a state’s power, and Central Asia has seen more than its fair share of conflicts erupt between these manifestations. As Nick Megoran illustrates, there is no such thing as a good or bad border. These invisible lines in the ground will act as states’ tools for advancing aims and achieving goals. This is a particularly useful truth to have in mind when examining the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan and Tajikistan-Uzbekistan borders.

It seems that the “reset” of the Uzbek border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is unlikely to bear the geopolitical fruit that public figures have been articulating. Positive changes like reopening checkpoints and easing visa requirements will certainly please inhabitants of the border-adjacent regions, but it is unclear how exactly this will lead to a long-term lessening of tensions in a disadvantaged and unpredictable region. The holy grail of regional cooperation – national borders and free movement of peoples – will never be achieved as long as factors like geopolitical jockeying and international terrorism go unaddressed. It remains to be seen whether border regulation will have a positive or negative net influence on the volatile Fergana Valley. While many statements and actions emanating from Tashkent have been positive in nature, experts would do well to keep expectations low and remain focused on the ever-present economic and political realities.

About the Author

Austen Dowell is an intern with ERA Institute’s Central Asia Watch Project. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).