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Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan Foreign Ministers Sign Water, Border Agreements

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Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan Foreign Ministers Sign Water, Border Agreements

Despite domestic opposition in Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek and Tashkent are moving ahead with their agreements on the Kempir-Abad reservoir.

Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan Foreign Ministers Sign Water, Border Agreements
Credit: Kyrgyzstan Foreign Ministry

On November 3, Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov visited neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where he met with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Jeenbek Kulubaev. The two foreign ministers signed a raft of agreements, most importantly several relating to the Kempir-Abad reservoir and the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

The Kempir-Abad reservoir (referred to as the Andijan reservoir in Uzbekistan) has become a flashpoint for domestic Kyrgyz opposition. In an effort to stifle dissent and rabblerousing over the looming agreement with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz authorities on October 23 arrested more than 20 people, ranging from politicians and former diplomats to activists and journalists, who were members of the recently formed “Kempir-Abad Defense Committee.” Bishkek alleges they were plotting mass riots.

The most critical agreements signed by the two foreign ministers include an agreement on settling different parts of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border and an agreement on the joint management of water resources in the Kempir-Abad reservoir.

A draft of the water management agreement was approved by a Kyrgyz parliamentary committee earlier this week. The draft on the delimitation of several sections of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border had been presented to the Committee on International Affairs, Defense, Security, and Migration earlier in October behind closed doors. The committee’s then-chairman, Chingiz Aidarbekov, refused to approve it and was replaced as chair. The border agreement was then approved by a majority of the committee.

The water management agreement was also approved on October 31, although three members of the committee – Aidarbekov, Adakhan Madumarov, and Nurzhigit Kadyrbekov – walked out of the meeting.

Both agreements were signed on November 2 by the foreign ministers. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is expected to visit to Kyrgyzstan soon to put the final stamp of approval on the agreements. No date has been announced yet for the visit, however. Neither side will want to taint what should be a landmark border agreement with possible protests in Bishkek.

The agreements, if finalized, would indeed mark a significant achievement in peacefully settling Central Asia’s borders. Not so long ago, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border was the most tense in the region. When Mirziyoyev assumed the Uzbek presidency after the 2016 death of Islam Karimov, for example, Kyrgyz and Uzbek forces were locked in a standoff on a mountain along the border. Tensions are now most pronounced along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

Under the new border agreement, Kyrgyzstan will exchange the territory of the Kempir-Abad reservoir — 4,485 hectares — with Uzbekistan for 19,000 hectares of land elsewhere along the border in the Osh and Jalal-Abad regions. Kyrgyzstan, as head of the State Committee for National Security Kamchybek Tashiev pointed out, will come away with more land after the agreement. 

The reservoir, constructed in 1983 on the edge of the famed Fergana Valley, has historically been used mostly by Uzbekistan for its agricultural industry. The agreements under discussion aim to codify an existing reality: Uzbekistan uses the reservoir more than Kyrgyzstan does, and it makes sense for Uzbekistan to play a large role in managing it. Under the agreement on water management, a 24-person joint commission — 12 from each side — will manage the reservoir, with the relevant water management agencies in each country taking the lead (in Kyrgyzstan, the director of the Water Resources Service in the Ministry of Agriculture; on the Uzbek side, the Minister of Water Resources.)

Those opposed to the deal highlight the manner in which these agreements were pushed through and how little input those affected by the land swap have had in discussions about it. They point out that an agreement on water sharing does not necessitate a land swap. 

That instead of weathering opposition to its decided policy aims, Bishkek opted to arrest the loudest voices is a troubling sign for Kyrgyzstan’s democracy. 

In an open letter, human rights groups in Kyrgyzstan appealed to the Uzbek president not to sign the agreement yet.

We understand that there are unsolved issues related to demarcation and delimitation of border between our countries that have been waiting for resolution for a long time…. But we would like to inform you that some documents related to the border agreement between our countries are being pushed forward with blatant violations of the constitutional norms, existing laws, as well as political foundations and democratic achievements of Kyrgyzstan.

Most of those arrested in late October in relation to their opposition to the border and water agreements have been ordered into two months of pre-trial detention.