Nine Potential ‘Karabakhs’ in Central Asia Heating Up

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 100

Sokh border closure, January 2013 (Source: TOL)

That the ethnic and political borders in Central Asia do not correspond is widely recognized; but the region’s nine ethnic exclaves, territories within the borders of one country that are ethnically distinct and politically part of a neighboring state, has attracted little attention in the past because most are very small. However, now these nine entities are being put into play for political purposes—in some cases by the people of the enclaves themselves, in others by the countries to which they belong or in which they are located, and in still a third group by Moscow. As a result, the situation around each of them is heating up, with the risk that one or more of them will become a Central Asian “Karabakh.”

Tajikistan has three such exclaves: Sarvan, an eight-square-kilometer area inside Uzbekistan, Vorukh, a 130-square-kilometer area inside Kyrgyzstan, and Kaigarach (Western Qalacha, a one-square-kilometer area also inside Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has five exclaves within Kyrgyzstan: Sokh which covers 325 square kilometers, Sakhimardan which extends over 90 square kilometers, Qalacha which covers less than one square kilometer, Dzhangail with less than one square kilometer, and Tayan, an even smaller space as well. And Kyrgyzstan has a single exclave in Uzbekistan: the village of Barak (or Barak-ail) between the Uzbekistani cities of Margilan and Fergana (for maps of these areas, see

Most of these are so small in size and population that they have remained irritants rather than become political problems. But the two largest, the Tajikistani exclave of Vorukh in Kyrgyzstan and the Uzbekistani exclave of Sokh within Kyrgyzstan, have been the most problematic because of their relatively large area and populations—the former has a population estimated at close to 30,000, 95 percent of whom are Tajiks, and the latter has a population of perhaps as many as 70,000, around 99 percent of whom are ethnic Tajiks. Both their size and the lack of balance between political control and ethnic composition have made them potential flashpoints whenever disputes have arisen between the two countries (see EDM, January 9, 30).

Vorukh has been the bigger problem. For more than a decade, Kyrgyzstan’s authorities have operated a border crossing facility on what is Tajikistan’s territory despite a 2008 accord between Dushanbe and Bishkek to shift it to Kyrgyzstan’s control. This border crossing has created problems for local Tajiks and sparked acts of violence and arson, most recently at the end of April when hostages were taken and law enforcement personnel were beaten—in many ways a replay of a similar violent clash that originated in and around Sokh in January. The conflict escalated when the Kyrgyzstani military cut the road between Vorukh and Tajikistan, provoking the residents of another Tajik village to block a nearby road that Kyrgyzstan’s citizens regularly use. Blocking access to Vorukh has become a regular event, occurring on at least ten occasions in 2012 alone (

Earlier this month (May 8), officials from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met to try to calm the situation, but they agreed only to ban any future construction of housing and roads in the area, lest that further destabilize the situation, and to create working groups to address the issues of the exclave and its relations with the surrounding territory of the Kyrgyz Republic. Those steps are unlikely to solve anything. As Tajik observer Hairullo Mirsaidov points out, “such bilateral meetings have been held frequently, immediately after each conflict on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border,” but in no case has “the situation as a whole changed in any way.” Few decisions are in fact taken, and even fewer, he says, have been implemented. Officials from Dushanbe say that the two sides are dug in and have refused even to agree on a common map.

Developments there and in Sokh recently suggest that the region’s national governments and even Moscow may be getting involved, provoking the escalation of conflicts in the pursuit of their interests. One Kyrgyz commentary notes that Tashkent appears to be orchestrating clashes in Sokh in order to pressure Bishkek on a variety of issues, including the construction of an upstream hydro-electric dam in Kyrgyzstan that Uzbeks fear will deprive them of water they need for their crops and population. Any action by Uzbekistan will only further inflame relations between the two countries (

There is an even greater danger, however—one implied by the Kyrgyz analysts. Moscow may be involved and working to exploit conflicts over these enclaves to pressure Uzbekistan to shift away from its pro-Western orientation. If such Russian intervention does happen, it would represent the continuation of an old tradition: after all, Joseph Stalin drew the borders in Central Asia not to resolve ethnic tensions but to promote them, and not to allow the peoples involved to resolve their problems but to create a situation in which the only basis for order would be a strong hand from the outside.