Over the weekend, Kyrgyz authorities searched the homes of more than a dozen activists following dissent and protest regarding a draft border deal Bishkek hopes to finalize with Tashkent soon. Detentions followed, with 20 politicians and activists remanded for two months of pre-trial detention, facing charges of plotting mass riots.
As I wrote earlier in October, as Kyrgyz leaders lauded a nearly-finished border deal with Uzbekistan, the final — and most significant — hurdle to settling the border was likely to be local and domestic opposition. Rather than weather dissent and explain the government’s decisions regarding the deal, Bishkek has landed with a heavy hand on its opponents.
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and his partner in power, head of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security Kamchybek Tashiev, have in recent months talked up a looming deal with Tashkent. It stands in start contrast to the absolute lack of progress (not to mention the sharp escalation of violence last month) on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
The deal with Uzbekistan would draw a line through long-contested territory and settle terms of sharing prominent resources on the border, such as the Kempir-Abad reservoir partially located in Osh region’s Uzgen district. But even as Japarov and Tashiev lauded the looming deal — hoped to be signed during an upcoming state visit by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev — locals protested.
For example, when Japarov traveled earlier this month to Uzgen, he was faced with villagers holding signs reading “It is better to give life than land!” and “Cancel protocols” among other slogans. When the draft deal was released, that local dissent expanded into wider political and activist circles in the country.
Under the deal, Kyrgyzstan would officially cede the 4,485 hectares containing the Kempir-Abad reservoir, in exchange for over 19,000 hectares located elsewhere. Since the reservoir’s creation in 1983, Uzbekistan has relied more deeply on the reservoir for water for its agricultural industry in the nearby Fergana Valley.
As Asel Murzakulova noted in an article for The Diplomat Magazine in September 2021, almost all of the reservoirs in the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border area “are used for the needs of the Uzbek agriculture and energy sectors.” This makes the reservoirs themselves “critically important” to Uzbekistan. “The Kyrgyz government, therefore, has been inclined to abandon some of its claims in exchange for irrigated land or plots of greater strategic value.”
Opposition to the deal centers on the land-swap, with RFE/RL noting that “[activists] say Uzbekistan could continue using the dam’s water, but the reservoir’s land should remain within Kyrgyzstan’s border.”
On October 22, Kyrgyz politician Ravshan Jeenbekov announced the formation of a committee “in defense of Kempir-Abad” and a rally set for October 24 in Bishkek. The next day the authorities raided dozens of activists’ and politicians’ homes and arrested dozens. Those detained over the weekend were largely sentenced to two months of pre-trial detention in a middle-of-the-night hearing on October 24-25.
Those detained include several former MPs (Kanat Isaev, Ravshan Jeenbekov, Asiya Sasykbaeva, Kubanychbek Kadyrov); a former ambassador (Azimbek Beknazarov); a former governor of Jalal-Abad region (Bektur Asanov); other political leaders (Zhenish Moldokmatov, Akyl Aitbaev); an ex-secretary of the Security Council (Keneshbek Duishebaev); a former member of the Central Election Commission (Gulnara Dzhurabaeva); a former Constitutional Court judge (Klara Sooronkulova); a journalist (Aidanbek Akmatov); and nearly a dozen activists (Atai Beishenbek, Chyngyz Kaparov, Ali Shabdan, Taalaibek Mademinov, Erlan Bekchoroev, Rita Karasartova, Ulukbek Mamataev, Perizat Suranova, Nurlan Asanbaev, Aibek Busurmankulov.) All of the above were given two months of pre-trial detention, with the exception of Isaev, who was given one month. One activist, Talant Eshaliev, was placed under house arrest due to health reasons. Another activist, Marat Bayazov, was detained for 48 hours on October 26.
On the one hand, Kyrgyzstan has a distinct history of protest-driven government change: Protests in 2005, 2010 and 2020 all resulted in changes of government. Japarov and Tashiev came to power in the wake of such public protests. On the other hand, such a dramatic crackdown may not avert such a scenario but instead feed further grievances and accusations of autocratic tendencies.
On October 24, protests against the deal went ahead in Bishkek, with dozens marching in the capital and no new arrests. As RFE/RL’s Chris Rickleton noted, there were similar rallies in Uzgen and Jalal-Abad in support of the government’s deal.
Japarov said in an interview after the arrests that he could not interfere in the legal process, but first he commented that those agitating against the deal were just using the reservoir issue as an “excuse.” He did conclude, however, that if those who have been arrested are convicted he could pardon them.