08 December 2005

Visas

The willingness of border guards to accept bribes does little to improve the inviolability of borders.

When the Soviet Union broke up, many expected that the borders would remain open and easy to cross, especially since many living near the borders have friends and families in neighboring countries or want to cross often to trade or for other business opportunities. Some villages are on certain borders; obviously, open borders and friendly relations would be vital for them:

In one instance in the town of Krasnyi Vodopad- divided by a river that forms the frontier [between Kazakstan and Uzbekistan]- the Uzbek authorities blew up the connecting bridge to prevent illegal border crossings [at the time, visas weren’t required for Kazakh or Uzbek nationals]. That left the village school on one side of the river, with the health clinic on the other. Families were split apart, and people with jobs on the other side found had to commute several kilometres to a patrolled border post instead of simply crossing the bridge.

Uzbekistan uses difficult tactics often, such as blowing up bridges and unilaterally mining borders. Uzbekistan was also the first to require visas from citizens of neighboring because of concerns over terrorism:

But its [Uzbekistan’s] response to understandable security concerns has been inappropriate and probably ineffective or even counterproductive. Uzbekistan has unilaterally laid mines along borders that have yet to be demarcated (often expanding its territory in the process), and also made occasional bombing raids against alleged IMU targets in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. While Tajikistan is too weak and too often divided to stand up to Uzbekistan, resentment over these heavy-handed policies in regard to border issues and treatment of the Tajik minority in Uzbekistan is readily apparent. Kyrgyzstan has made concessions to Tashkent in the past over borders but with increased public attention to the issue, there is little chance that President Askar Akaev can continue to accommodate his larger neighbor without paying a heavy political price.

Obviously this is out of date now, but it will be interesting to see how Bakiev handles border issues with Uzbekistan. It has also been very interesting to live in a country that is the underdog to nearly all its neighbors. It was a similar feeling in Palestine, although very different too.

Currently Uzbekistan is not at all accomodating towards Kyrgyz citizens traveling to Uzbekistan. A visa is always required. On the other hand, Kazakh and Kyrgyz citizens can cross each other’s border freely. The visas for Uzbekistan are especially troublesome because the only place to obtain a visa is at the Uzbek Embassy in Bishkek. When you live in Osh and want to cross the border to visit someone who lives a few miles away, but have to go to Bishkek first to get a visa, well, you’re probably not going to go to Uzbekistan very often.

But the first line from this post states clearly how ineffective these regulations often are. What is the point of trying to tighten up the borders if the guards are willing to accept bribes? Uzbekistan is concerned mainly about terrorism, but also about the flow of drugs from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Border guards are often poorly trained and not well paid (although I will never stop arguing that increasing their pay would not effectively stop corruption). It would be much more effective to improve the quality of the border guards than to stop everyone who wants to visit their grandmother living in another country.

I’ve mentioned before how negative the law students often are about Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan. Certainly not all feel this way, but there is a general sense that many aren’t very happy with the Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan:

In the long term, the increased division of peoples of the Ferghana Valley is reinforcing negative stereotypes and hardening national identities. These new borders in the minds of people in the valley threaten the cooperation and trade that is vital to all three countries of the region. They also feed into existing inter-ethnic strains in the region between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. There is little crossborder cooperation or interaction between local governments, and many attempts by international organizations to establish such programs have been blocked by inter-state rivalry. In particular, Uzbekistan’s antipathy to valley-wide programs has made such activities difficult...

Unless these territorial issues are dealt with effectively, they risk directly fueling nationalist and irredentist sentiments. Indeed, the sharp political divisions within Kyrgyzstan about territorial concessions offer stark testament to the potentially destabilizing impact of border issues if they are not dealt with transparently and strictly according to law. Ignoring political opposition and overruling legitimate protests by local residents risks undermining any border agreements that are reached. Illegitimate agreements only store up trouble for the future.

Quotes from 2002 report of ICG.

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