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Kyrgyzstan - Central Asian Neighbors

Kyrgyzstan is bordered by four nations, three of which -- Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- are former Soviet republics. China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where a substantial separatist movement has been active, also adjoins the republic. The boundary with China is fully demarcated. Delimitation with Kazakhstan is largely complete with only minor disputed areas. Disputes in Isfara Valley delay completion of delimitation with Tajikistan. Delimitation is underway with Uzbekistan but serious disputes around enclaves and elsewhere continue to mar progress for some 130 km of border. The absence of demarcated and delineated borders between Kyrgyzstan and its Tajik and Uzbek neighbors has fueled occasional clashes between residents and each government's border services. In addition, the government is hyper-sensitive to the threat of Islamic separatism in the South. In May 2009, IMU/IJU militants launched attacks on Uzbek security facilities on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, and an additional militant blew himself up outside a police station in Andijon, Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government claimed that these attacks were launched from Kyrgyz soil.

Undoubtedly the most immediate concern is neighboring Uzbekistan, which, under the leadership of President Islam Karimov, emerged as the strongest state in post-Soviet Central Asia. Although Uzbekistan faced serious economic problems of its own, it has a homogeneous and well-educated population of more than 20 million, a diversified and developed economy, and sufficient natural resources to allow the country to become self-sufficient in energy and a major exporter of gold, cotton, and natural gas.

Uzbekistan has the best organized and best disciplined security forces in all of Central Asia, as well as a relatively large and experienced army and air force. Uzbekistan dominates southern Kyrgyzstan both economically and politically, based on the large Uzbek population in that region of Kyrgyzstan and on economic and geographic conditions. Much of Kyrgyzstan depends entirely on Uzbekistan for natural gas; on several occasions in the 1990s, Karimov achieved political ends by shutting pipelines or by adjusting terms of delivery. In a number of television appearances broadcast in the Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces of Kyrgyzstan, Karimov addressed Akayev with considerable condescension; Akayev, in turn, was highly deferential to his much stronger neighbor. Although Uzbekistan had not shown overt expansionist tendencies, the Kyrgyz government was acutely aware of the implications of Karimov's assertions that he was responsible for the well-being of all Uzbeks, regardless of their nation of residence.

Although it presented no such expansionist threat, Kazakstan is as important to northern Kyrgyzstan as Uzbekistan is to the south. The virtual closure of Manas Airport at Bishkek in the 1990s made Kazakstan's capital, Almaty, the principal point of entry to Kyrgyzstan for a time. The northwestern city of Talas received nearly all of its services through the city of Dzhambyl, across the border in Kazakstan. Although Kazakstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev cooperated in economic agreements, in May 1993 Kyrgyzstan's introduction of the som caused Nazarbayev to close his country's border with Kyrgyzstan to avoid a flood of worthless Kyrgyzstani rubles.

Kyrgyzstan's relations with Tajikistan have been tense. Refugees and antigovernment fighters in Tajikistan have crossed into Kyrgyzstan several times, even taking hostages. Kyrgyzstan attempted to assist in brokering an agreement between contesting Tajikistani forces in October 1992 but without success. Akayev later joined presidents Karimov and Nazarbayev in sending a joint intervention force to support Tajikistan's president Imomali Rahmonov against insurgents, but the Kyrgyzstani parliament delayed the mission of its small contingent for several months until late spring 1993. In mid-1995 Kyrgyzstani forces had the responsibility of sealing a small portion of the Tajikistan border near Panj from Tajikistani rebel forces.

The greater risk to Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan in the 1990s was the general destabilization that the protracted civil war brought to the region. In particular, the Khorugh-Osh road, the so-called "highway above the clouds," became a major conduit of contraband of all sorts, including weapons and drugs. A meeting of the heads of the state security agencies of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, and Uzbekistan, held in Osh in the spring of 1995, also drew the conclusion that ethnic, social, and economic conditions in Osh were increasingly similar to those in Tajikistan in the late 1980s, thus recognizing the contagion of Tajikistan's instability.

Chinese-Kyrgyzstani relations were initially an area of substantial uncertainty for the government in Bishkek. China became Kyrgyzstan's largest non-CIS trade partner, but China's influence was stronger in the north of Kyrgyzstan than in the south. The free-trade zone in Naryn attracted large numbers of Chinese businesspeople, who came to dominate most of the republic's import and export of small goods. Most of this trade was in barter conducted by ethnic Kyrgyz or Kazaks who were Chinese citizens. The Kyrgyzstani government expressed alarm over the numbers of Chinese who were moving into Naryn and other parts of Kyrgyzstan, but no preventive measures were taken.

The Akayev government also was solicitous of Chinese sensibilities on questions of nationalism because the Chinese did not want the independence of the Central Asian states to stimulate dreams of statehood among their own Turkic Muslim peoples. Although the Kyrgyz in China have been historically quiescent, China's Uygurs (of whom there is a small exile community in Kyrgyzstan) have been militant in their desire to attain independence. This is the major reason that Kyrgyzstan has refused to permit the formation of an Uygur party.

In the 1990s, trade with China grew to such a volume that some officials in Kyrgyzstan feared that by the late 1990s Kyrgyzstan's economy will be entirely dominated by China. In some political quarters, the prospect of Chinese domination stimulated nostalgia for the days of Moscow's control.

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Page last modified: 06-06-2021 18:21:39 ZULU