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Prospects for protest in Kyrgyzstan’s post-border deal

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Prospects for protest in Kyrgyzstan’s post-border deal

On November 17, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament rapidly ratified an agreement to delimit the country’s border with Uzbekistan in all three readings. Photo: Peter in s/Wikimedia Commons

WHAT’S HAPPENING?On November 17, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament rapidly ratified an agreement to delimit the country’s border with Uzbekistan in all three readings. Earlier protests against the agreement’s recognition of the Kempir-Abad (or Andijan) reservoir as belonging to Uzbekistan led to the mass arrest of politicians and activists. An agreement on the joint use of the reservoir was approved in parliament on October 31.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The ratification of the bilateral water-use and border agreement will continue to spark smaller-scale, regional protests
– The crackdown on these and other protests not aligned with the current leadership’s policies will continue
– Although these developments may gradually erode Western ties with Kyrgyzstan, they are unlikely to affect regional relations within Central Asia or the current balancing act of ties with Russia

A DAM, A DEAL, AND DEMONSTRATIONS

Prior to the full parliament’s ratification, the Kyrgyz parliamentary Committee on International Relations, Defense, Security and Migration ratified the deal on October 10. The Committee’s ratification of the border agreement occurred largely in secret and did not provide lawmakers with the entire text of the document. It is the culmination of multiple rounds of negotiations that followed a March 2021 treaty between the countries on the issue.

It also follows a 2017 deal that delineated and ratified 85% of the countries’ shared border and a preliminary agreement in November 2016. According to the president’s representative in Parliament, Almabek Abytov, Kyrgyzstan would receive 19,699 hectares of land under the deal  in exchange for the 4,485 hectares under the reservoir, although the exact details are as yet unclear. The related agreement approved on October 31 ostensibly gives both countries equal say in the use of the dam.

Kyrgyzstan’s water use is focused around generating hydroelectric power, while Uzbekistan relies on the downstream water supply —determined by the dam levels of its neighbor — for agriculture. Uzbekistan is historically Central Asia’s largest consumer of water. Water and energy struggles have often exacerbated inter-ethnic and border disputes in the region. With the deadly unrest on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border in September of this year, Kyrgyzstan’s relations within Central Asia are uneven, but ties with Uzbekistan have been relatively stable.

The dam’s looming handover has long sparked popular discontent and a harsh response from authorities, who forcibly removed the yurts set up by protesters in a border region days before the agreement was ratified and detained opponents to the deal from the same region days prior to the mass detention of activists in Bishkek.

DOMESTIC AFTERMATH

In a petition to release the activists and politicians who opposed the dam handover and were detained in late October, over 70 NGOs and activists cautioned that the government’s actions could cause a major divide in society and clashes among citizens, presumably over support for or opposition to authorities and in response to repression .

The petitioners also assert that those detained were not planning a coup as the authorities claimed, but were instead discussing a peaceful protest. Nevertheless, the swift crackdown may have already had a chilling effect on those sharing the views of the detainees: a planned demonstration on October 26 against the transfer of Kempir-Abad to Uzbekistan did not seemingly take place, with the square instead filled with police and paddy wagons.

This suppression of the freedom of assembly is put into starker relief in considering how the current leadership came to power. President Sadyr Japarov was himself jailed before mass protest led to his release and the resignation of his predecessor. The recent charges against activists and politicians of plotting a regime change are likely informed by this, with Japarov and his government highly fearful of a repeat scenario.

Unfortunately, authorities’ recent actions in line with the demands of  protesters calling for the closure of independent media seemingly indicates that demonstrations that more closely  align with the current government’s policy will be allowed to continue, as well as that the crackdown on freedom of expression more broadly is likely to persist  and even accelerate in the near term. While further protests on the Kempir-Abad and other issues may recur, especially in border regions, they will be much smaller in scope and more quickly quelled by authorities.

REGIONAL RELATIONS

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The petition to release the detainees likewise asserted that the authorities were risking the international reputation and image of Kyrgyzstan. In its immediate neighborhood, however, the crackdown on opponents of the Kempir-Abad handover is unlikely to alter relations significantly. After over a year of negotiations, the ratification of a deal resolving much of their territorial disputes is likely only to strengthen ties with Uzbekistan. Indeed, Uzbekistan’s own legislature approved the border agreement on November 14.

As for Tajikistan, tensions over the recent deadly border clashes will continue to take precedence in defining relations as well as their own separate bilateral water use issues and territorial disputes. The former will also likely preclude the resolution of the latter in the near- to medium-term.  According to Freedom House, Kyrgyzstan continues to have the highest score by far on civil liberties when compared to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, and further protest suppression is unfortunately unlikely to prompt ostracism within Central Asia. 

Within the broader scope of international relations, while the suppression of protesters is likely to erode ties with Western partners over time, other issues are likely to continue to define Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Russia. The most salient of these issues is the Kyrgyz-Tajik border situation. Kyrgyzstan recently refused to send its soldiers to participate in a mid-October Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) exercise, citing negative public opinion on joint activity with Tajik servicemen in the context of border unrest. A little over a week later,  Kyrgyzstan’s Defense minister announced that he had requested that the Russia-led CSTO send peacekeeping troops to its border with Tajikistan to enforce the ceasefire.

This plea also followed a statement by President Japarov that implicitly referenced the CSTO, criticizing “authoritative regional organizations” for not intervening to prevent conflicts in the region. It is clear that the recent border violence has heightened frustration with and willingness to buck the demands of CSTO membership, but not to an extent that would push Kyrgyzstan to leave the alliance and incur Russia’s ire or to not avail itself of potential CSTO assistance. 

Another key issue affecting bilateral relations remains Russia’s  war in Ukraine and its consequences. Although a recent poll demonstrated that only 14% of respondents from Kyrgyzstan believed the war was solely Russia’s fault, Kyrgyzstan has allowed some overt expression of anti-war sentiment while signalling neutrality via high-level channels. Several small banking institutions in the country also recently stopped processing transactions via a Russian payment card out of fear of falling under international sanctions. This step was announced soon after a Russian official called on the country to broaden the use of Russian payment systems. As Kyrgyzstan continues to push back against Russian initiatives while taking action to mitigate the impact on bilateral ties, domestic protests over a border issue with a third country and the authorities’ continued crackdown on them are unlikely to tip the scale definitively in any one direction.

Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.

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