Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently issued an official statement praising Uzbekistan’s decision to de-mine the border between the two countries. According to the statement, Uzbekistan’s action will “contribute to the strengthening of traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial relations in the Central Asian region” (RIA Novosti, June 23, 2004).
The Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border turned out to be one of the most contested frontiers in the entire post-Soviet space. The fundamental problem was that these countries used different maps to define the line of demarcation: Tashkent uses the 1927 map, whereas Bishkek the 1954 map. These maps differ significantly, which explains why the two countries have been unable to resolve many disputes that stretch along the entire length of the border. Approximately 40 sections of the border remain disputed in the Fergana Valley — simultaneously the most overpopulated region in Central Asia and a region with complex inter-ethnic and geographic problems. There are three Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyzstan and seven Kyrgyz enclaves in Uzbekistan.
The situation was further complicated by Tashkent’s decision to mine the border, which was carried out by Uzbekistan’s military in 1999-2000. The mining was a defensive response to the invasion of Kyrgyzstan by international terrorists affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The militants aimed to occupy the Fergana Valley, which, by their calculations, would become the core of a new state: the Islamic Caliphate. In order to protect Uzbekistan from invasion, the military mined the border territory. The mines were placed along the disputed sections of the border as well as on territories that were under the jurisdiction of Kyrgyzstan.
However, the Uzbek side never turned over the maps of mine fields to the Kyrgyz side. As a result, there were many mine accidents involving farm animals, because the local population would bring their cattle to traditional grazing areas, which were now riddled with mines. There were human casualties as well. According to RIA Novosti, in the past three years 11 citizens of Kyrgyzstan became victims of the anti-personnel landmines. Six of them, including three children, died, while the others lost limbs. (RIA Novosti, June 23, 2004) There is no indication that any of the victims were the IMU militants or some other terrorists willing to cross the border into Uzbekistan.
Kyrgyzstan had repeatedly sent Tashkent proposals regarding demarcation of the state border. Kyrgyzstan pledged that it would not allow the infiltration of the Central Asian region in general – and Uzbekistan in particular — by international terrorist organizations via its territory. However, no official response from Tashkent followed these initiatives. Thus Bishkek was forced to unilaterally determine its side of the border. The Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, Nikolai Tanaev, declared that the Ministry of Ecology and Emergency Situations and the regiments of the Border Guard Service of Kyrgyzstan would begin de-mining the border. However, Kyrgyzstan lacked qualified specialists who could implement this initiative, so Kyrgyzstan reached an agreement with Moscow, according to which Russia would train Kyrgyzstani specialists in de-mining techniques. As a result, in the fall of 2001 the Kyrgyzstani sappers began de-mining the border with Uzbekistan. In particular, up to 80 acres of land adjacent to the border surrounding the Sokh and Shakhimardan enclaves were cleared of any anti-personnel landmines (Itar-Tass, September 18, 2001).
Only on June 18, 2004, at a special meeting of the Permanent Council of the OSCE in Vienna, did the Uzbek side finally declare its intention to consider completely de-mining the state border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Analysts in Central Asia and Russia think that Uzbekistan made this decision not because of pressure from the OSCE, but because the OSCE meeting had been precipitated by an earlier summit of the heads of state of members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was held in Tashkent. The meeting resulted in the establishment of the headquarters of the Executive Committee of the SCO’s Regional Anti-terrorist Structure in Tashkent. Uzbekistan likely seeks to improve relations with other SCO members, including Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, as well as Kyrgyzstan.