Crossroads Asia

What’s Next for the Kempir-Abad Dissenters?

Recent Features

Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

What’s Next for the Kempir-Abad Dissenters?

It seems the Kyrgyz authorities are set on prosecuting the politicians and activists who stridently opposed the border deal with Uzbekistan, accusing them of coup-plotting.

What’s Next for the Kempir-Abad Dissenters?
Credit: Depositphotos

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s state visit to neighboring Kyrgyzstan was described as “upcoming” in September, October, and November 2022. The visit finally got a date, in early December, only to be postponed but promised before the end of the year. It was postponed yet again, and the year closed without it occurring. 

The visit is back to being described as “upcoming,” a noncommittal phrase that underscores the ongoing concerns in Bishkek about dissenters ruining what the Sadyr Japarov government views as a diplomatic achievement. 

The diplomatic achievement Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are anxious to mark is, of course, the signing of a momentous border deal between the neighbors in 2022. In late November, the two presidents separately signed into law the ratification of a treaty relating to their shared border, particularly surrounding the Kempir-Abad (or Andijan, as it is referred to by the Uzbek side) reservoir.

As I’ve covered previously:

The agreements, as outlined by, include a land swap, which sees Uzbekistan receive the 4,957 hectares on which the Kempir-Abad (Andijan) reservoir sits as well as an additional 19.5 hectares “for the maintenance and protection of the dam.” In turn, Kyrgyzstan receives 1,019 hectares of pasture land plus 12,849 hectares in a separate section of the border as compensation. An additional agreement relates to the joint management of the reservoir’s water, which Uzbekistan has been the primary user of since the reservoir’s creation in 1983.

Kyrgyzstan comes away from the agreement with more land, and Uzbekistan gains control of a reservoir that it has long already been the primary user of. 

Nevertheless the negotiations and deal sparked some controversy, particularly allegations of a lack of consultation by Kyrgyz authorities with people living near the reservoir. The domestic situation escalated in October. A group of politicians and activists formed a committee in opposition — the “Kempir-Abad Defense Committee” — and Bishkek pounced. Days before the Kyrgyz and Uzbek foreign minister were scheduled to meet and sign the agreement, members of the committee were arrested en masse, accused of plotting mass riots, and sent for two months of pre-trial detention.

The agreement was signed by the foreign ministers in early November without incident, and the game plan appeared to be a signing between the presidents to take place during Mirziyoyev’s anticipated state visit. But the state visit, as noted above, didn’t happen, and after the respective legislative processes in both countries the two presidents signed the treaty separately at the end of November. 

In early December it was reported that as many as 19 of the arrested politicians and activists in Kyrgyzstan had begun a hunger strike. On December 12, a court in Bishkek ordered the extension of their pre-trial detention for two more months — to February 20 — a decision upheld later in the month. The hunger strike was also ended in late December.

On January 10, supporters and relatives of those detained staged a protest in Bishkek, planning to begin a march near the Interior Ministry. According to Kloop, police near the Interior Ministry informed he group that they could not protest there, and they began to move toward Gorky Park, but before reaching the park police began to arrest the demonstrators near the Supreme Court. In total, 27 were reportedly detained, with all released later in the day

Protests have been banned in much of central Bishkek since March 2022. Gorky Park – a small spot, hidden by trees, in the northeast corner of downtown Bishkek – is specified as the sole designated space for public gatherings. In fact, on January 10, a district court upheld the extension of the restrictions on rallies in Bishkek.

In mid-December, when asked about the Kempir-Abad dissenters and appeals from their relatives that he order them to be released, Japarov replied, “I didn’t arrest them.” While he said their fate would be decided by a court, lawyers for the accused criticized Japarov for speaking of those detained as if they were guilty already.

It’s ironic language coming from a man who was in prison until a protest over a botched parliamentary election erupted in Bishkek in October 2022 and he was freed. Although other arrested politicians were soon returned to their cells, Japarov was not. He rapidly rose to a position of power and the Kyrgyz Supreme Court moved swiftly to overturn his 2017 conviction. He was ultimately elected president in January 2021. 

So on one hand, we may expect some kind of sympathy from Japarov; on the other hand, if anyone knows the power of a protest to unsettle a Kyrgyz government, it’s Japarov.

It seems the Kyrgyz authorities are set on prosecuting the Kempir-Abad dissenters, prolonging and escalating the controversy from beyond a dispute over a specific policy choice to larger issues: How a state handles criticism and its most strident critics.

Meanwhile, Mirziyiyev’s state visit remains ever “upcoming.”