Uzbekistan remains the focus of terrorists in Central Asia. This situation has encouraged a “siege mentality” among the higher echelons of the Uzbek government, which is seeking to strengthen the country’s political and security institutions by combining them. Tashkent’s obsession with security also extends to the country’s borders. While seeming to liberalize trade and the movement of people in Central Asia, Uzbekistan has simultaneously maintained — if not strengthened — its border controls, especially with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan along the Fergana Valley.
Because the Fergana Valley remains the main source of unrest in Central Asia, senior members of the security apparatus are becoming increasingly visible. Law-enforcement and security officials, particularly those with strong anti-terrorism track records, are increasingly rising to positions of authority, while individuals lacking this background are being systematically purged or pushed aside. The government reacted to the Andijan fiasco of May 2005 by removing governor Saydulla Begaliev and replacing him with the former chief of police in Namangan, Major-General Ahmajan Usmanov (Uznews.net, January 29; uzmetronom.com, October 13, 2006). Before being assigned to the Namangan police department to deal with growing extremism and terrorism, Usmanov was a deputy minister of the interior. The current governor of Kokand, Maruf Usmanov, and the current head of the state oil and gas company, Abdusalom Azizov (himself a former deputy interior minister), also have law-enforcement backgrounds. Finally, the current head of the Fergana police directorate is a former presidential advisor on internal affairs and yet another former deputy interior minister.
The recent wave of appointments of Uzbek officials with security backgrounds confirms a trend begun in the mid-1990s, namely the progressive securitization of the Uzbek political apparatus. Law-enforcement veterans now occupy many key positions, notably the second-highest posts in most government organs. Only the most trusted individuals are assigned to the restive Fergana Valley.
Another powerful figure, Kobul Abidov, was recently given a one-year suspended sentence, which is a rather strange prison term in Uzbekistan. At one point he had been a close ally of President Islam Karimov, serving as the Andijan oblast governor from 1993 to 1996. In 1998 he was awarded the rarely bestowed “Highest Hero of Uzbekistan” medal. In 2000, he served a short stint as deputy prime minister before returning as governor in 2004. Shortly afterwards, he was publicly admonished by the president and fired. Another recent purge victim is the first civilian defense minister, Kadir Guliamov, who was prosecuted in May 2006 for having too close ties with the West and replaced by Ruslan Mirsoev, former secretary of the National Security Council (ferghana.ru, May 24, 2006) Tracing these appointments and sackings, the president appears to rotate oblast governors every five years.
This trend, while reflecting trust issues, may also be a temporary power-sharing agreement, whereby certain cadres are given important positions for a limited time and then sacked under various pretexts, both as a show of presidential strength and to prevent the establishment of fiefdoms. If the official is not sacked, he is usually appointed to the largely meaningless and ceremonial position of senator. Many former allies of the president have now become senators, including former minister of foreign affairs Sodiq Safaev and former deputy prime minister Mirabror Usmanov.
Another explanation lies in the highly centralized nature of the Uzbek state, which, unlike Russia or Kazakhstan, has failed to build continuity into the civil service. This has created a purge-and-replace process, with the result that the best professionals have either left the country or been hired by international organizations. Several key Ministry of Foreign Affairs cadres, who served abroad for five to seven years are now employed by the United Nations in Uzbekistan.
To meet requirements of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc), Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan agreed to lift visas for travel of up to 60 days. While there would be clear economic benefits to the people of the Fergana Valley if border controls were relaxed or regulated more efficiently, security concerns apparently continue to dominate Uzbekistan’s attitude toward the region. Tashkent has obligations under the EurAsEc Treaty to relax cross-border trade regulations, and the government has claimed that it is simplifying procedures in the Fergana Valley, but in reality the immigration regulations have become even more complicated for persons entering Uzbekistan. Tashkent has increased control at the border checkpoints and has established additional internal control points (utilizing police, tax, and customs authorities) all the way along the route from Karasuu, the main checkpoint used by shuttle traders on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, to Tashkent. A similar control mechanism was introduced after terrorist attacks in the 1990s.
This, in turn, has had the predictable effect of increasing smuggling and corruption. Jamestown analysts have interviewed several shuttle traders en route from Andijan to Tashkent, and all report that they still avoid official checkpoints when crossing the border and now face extra bribe demands to pay their way to Tashkent. They also unanimously preferred the previous visa regime, when rigorous control was only imposed at border crossings. Despite the fact that Uzbekistan does not recognize the new Kyrgyz ID card, very few Kyrgyz actually cross into Uzbekistan. This policy, therefore, mainly affects Uzbeks returning from Kyrgyzstan. There are no comparable controls on the Kyrgyz side of the border.
Most goods in Central Asia flow through Kyrgyzstan. However, the Uzbek implementation of the visa-free regime has benefited neither Uzbekistan nor its neighbor, Kyrgyzstan. Tashkent’s security obsession, while justified, has damaged Uzbek-Tajik relations.
Uzbekistan will have to find a way to balance its security requirements with its economic commitments in the region and abroad if it is to benefit from Central Asian integration and trade liberalization. Cooperation on border control between Uzbekistan and its neighbors is now more necessary than ever if the country is to ensure both its future security and prosperity.