Outside Ravan’s local teahouse in Uzbekistan’s semi-autonomous Sokh enclave, ethnic Tajik men gather under the lush grapevines in the garden to drink copious amounts of tea, exchange stories, and discuss local politics in hushed voices. A tranquil scene at first glance, an imposing Uzbek flag painted on the building serves as a constant reminder of the problems faced by Sokh and six other ethnic enclaves marooned - so to speak - in southern Kyrgyzstan. With the mainland of Uzbekistan only 18 km to the north, Sokh represents a microcosm of the intractable challenges facing the region.
The UN regional coordinator in southern Kyrgyzstan, Bruno Decordier, told IRIN that the problems in the enclave were those of the subregion in a nutshell. “The density of enclaves you have in such a limited area is unique in the world and their impact even more so.”
With the approach of summer, roadblocks were being re-established outside Ravan and throughout Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken Province to thwart possible incursions by fighters of the greatly feared Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). This radical Islamic group aims to overthrow the governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and replace them with a religious authority. In the past two years, the militants have made two military incursions into the volatile and impoverished Ferghana Valley. Today, a visible military presence exists on the edge of the enclaves in the region.
According to a recent UN report, the increasing social-ethnic and political strife in southern Kyrgyzstan has resulted from high unemployment, poverty, land shortage, water disputes, corruption, and an increase in competition in the regional drug trade. These tensions have led to violence over water use. In 1989, clashes over water allocations resulted in several deaths and injuries in Samarkandek on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Similarly, ethnic tension in 1990 led to intense fighting in the Uzgen, Kara Su and Jalalabad areas. More recently, an IMU incursion into the Batken Province captured international attention.
The excision of the enclaves dates back to the 1920s, when the borders of the then Soviet republics were being demarcated by Stalin, with the active participation of local communist party officials, who had strong family ties to certain regions and influenced the archaic demarcation of borders.
With a population of 43,000 and an area of 325 square kilometres, Sokh is the same size as the Gaza Strip.
Predominately Tajik, many inhabitants are descendants of a Tajik migration from the ancient Uzbek city of Samarkand. Vorukh, where Tajik and Kyrgyz land- and water-related ethnic tensions have erupted in the past, has a population of 25,000. Both enclaves are suspected of being sympathetic towards the IMU.
Describing the archipelago of enclaves as a kind of “political puzzle”, Decordier said it presented innumerable problems for the region. “The border areas were drawn for political administrative entities that were never meant to become independent. The fact that these borders are now international has resulted in a greater militarisation of the area, creating huge delays, as well as a harassment and shakedown of citizens,” he said. This hampered the proper flow of goods, services and people, he added. The local markets in Ravan are visibly short of fruits and vegetables commonly found in Uzbekistan. Driving from Isfana, the last administrative centre of Kyrgyzstan, to Osh, the country’s second-largest city, you had to cross the border nine times, Decordier said.
Irrigation has been adversely affected. Many cross-border irrigation channels have been diverted or cut off, while border communities no longer have access to water sources that lie directly on the border. Under strong demographic pressure, some of the hamlets within the Sokh enclave have diverted water from the main river flowing through it, resulting in the Kyrgyz villages of Boz-Adyr and Kara-Tokoi downstream only managing to cover 45 percent of their water needs. This has resulted in strong animosity between the two groups.
The more populous enclaves of Sokh and Vorukh have seen an informal outward migration of their male population to Russia. Many Vorukh men migrate seasonally to sell fruit and vegetables in Siberia. Prompted by a shortage of land and employment opportunities in Sokh, others join family members in the nearby Kyrgyz mining town of Haydarken, where a third of the population is Tajik. With the recent exodus of Russian inhabitants, there is ample housing for new arrivals. Many Tajiks are attracted by Kyrgyzstan’s liberal and open economic atmosphere.
Decordier warned that an outward migration of rural youth to the cities in search of opportunity, mostly to Osh in the case of Kyrgyzstan, could prove particularly dangerous. “You have impoverished rural residents being heaped up in the cities. It reminds me of the 1960s and 1970s in Lebanon, where you had mainly Shiite peasants flocking to Beirut. This created a social time bomb, [leading to] the results that we all know,” he said.
The IMU incursions of the previous two years and the subsequent military build-up has aggravated the already difficult socioeconomic situation in southwestern Kyrgyzstan. In response to growing public discontent, a Kyrgyz-Uzbek agreement in late 2000 led to the removal of two checkpoints in the Sokh enclave and the opening of a “green transit road” between Pulgon-Kadamjai and Markaz on the road to Osh. However, this year’s militarisation of the border areas by Uzbek and Kyrgyz troops is likely to strain relations with affected rural communities.
The random laying of land mines by Uzbekistan along the border north of Sokh, sometimes within Kyrgyz territory, has worsened local relations. According to the UN, there have been half a dozen land-mine incidents since late 1999 in Sokh’s neighbouring enclaves, which have led to two casualties, livestock deaths and an official damage claim of US $16,610. Since land mines and restricted movement jeopardise agro-pastoral activities, it can be expected they will trigger a new migration wave of rural youth to the cities or mining towns.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the larger question has been how to remedy the seemingly intractable political and economic complexities of the enclaves.
Recently, there was a leak to the media of a secret memorandum between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The alleged deal was that Uzbekistan wanted a land corridor between Sokh and its mainland at the enclave of Karacha. In return, Kyrgyzstan would receive the village of Taryan and 40 hectares of agricultural land on the southern end of the Sokh enclave.
One local analyst told IRIN: “It remains to be seen how serious this suggestion is, or whether it will be implemented. But one thing is for sure [and it is that] it has led to a lot of discontent here among the population and local authorities in Batken.” Resented most by the Kyrgyz population is the sheer injustice of such a deal, and that they were not consulted, the analyst said. If it happens, a big part of Batken will become “enclaved” itself. At the moment there is an alternative route avoiding Sokh, but such a corridor would present an even far longer detour for the most important transit artery in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Furthermore, there is also speculation that Uzbekistan wants to have easier access to its Sokh enclave for military reasons. First, because the Tajik inhabitants there sympathise with the IMU guerrillas and, secondly, during their first incursions in 1999, the IMU came very close to Sokh. According to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, “there is only one policy here - security, security and security”. While the linkup would provide Ravan’s ethnic Tajik inhabitants with a far greater market for their goods and services in Uzbekistan, the land corridor would undoubtedly have strong military and strategic implications for the region, allowing Tashkent’s authoritarian government to better quell local discontent in the region, as well as keep the IMU in check.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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