by Ted Rall
(AR) BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan --
began a few weeks ago as a
bizarre border raid by Islamic fundamentalists in a
remote area of what is already the most remote place on
Earth, has rapidly escalated into a volatile crisis that
threatens to end eight years of entente among the
breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union.
On Aug. 21 a group of Islamic fundamentalists led by Uzbek rebel Dzhuma Namangani left their base in Tajikistan -- a former Soviet republic to the west of China that has been reduced to anarchy and UN partition -- and crossed into southern Kyrgyzstan, a nation so dominated by its mountains that it's often called Central Asia's Switzerland.
There, the gunmen -- estimated by Kyrgyz officials at 600 to 1,000 -- seized about a dozen hostages, four of them Japanese geologists looking for oil. Although six Uzbek mountaineers were released, the number of hostages has been revised upward to include Kyrgyz officials and soldiers being held in six villages ensconced in virtually inaccessible gorges and mountain passes.
Two Uzbek jet fighters, called in by the Kyrgyz government to help their ground forces, escalated matters by first bombing Tajikistan by mistake, and then bombing the Kyrgyz village of Kara-Teiit, which is not involved in the crisis. Four people died and 16 were injured in that raid.
Kyrgyz officials, understandably enough, have asked the Uzbeks to back off. But Uzbekistan, which views itself as a regional peacekeeper and powerbroker, is furious, and President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has ordered the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border closed.
is the first time since the Soviet collapse in 1991 that
border tensions among the southern breakaway republics
(Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and
Tajikistan) has led to a wholesale collapse of relations. In
a region groaning with the largest oil deposits in the
world, but where the great mass of people earn $20 to $30
per month, social stability is in short supply. Add the
threat of Taliban- and Iran-sponsored Muslim radicals,
the open secret that some of these nations still have
nukes and the rise of a mafia-run kleptocracy, and the
only glue holding these gerrymandered states (Stalin
purposefully carved them up so that no ethnic group
would ever dominate any republic) is diplomatic
As of Monday, the only way to travel between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan was to enter Kazakhstan, which borders both countries to the north, and then cut back south. But as I crossed the border on foot -- neither buses nor the Trans-Caspian Railway are running due to the conflict -- along with a stream of traders, refugees and ordinary citizens trying to conduct business along the old Silk Road, it became clear that Kazakh officials are severely restricting access to both countries.
The Uzbek-Kazakh checkpoint at Saryages, normally a sleepy, dusty outpost where a lone border policeman waves vehicles through with the ease of driving from Ohio to Michigan, has become choked with thousands of confused people trying to get home but being shaken down by border policeman on both sides.
A six-hour trip became a 20-hour odyssey by taxi, on foot and by bus; I was hit up for bribes ranging from a bunch of grapes (!) to $200 at each of seven checkpoints -- only my journalist credentials got me through, albeit minus the grapes, which weren't seedless anyway.
It's difficult to convey the heightened sense of imminent collapse here in Bishkek, especially in a city finally beginning to recover from last year's most recent fiscal freefall, this one caused by a wholesale currency devaluation. The street lights that were broken when I was here in 1997 are still out, but both the traffic signals and the airport are operational again.
Just as life seems to offer hope -- meaningful improvements in living standards have been enjoyed by only a few hundred beneficiaries of World Bank loans who stole the cash -- the one thing that people value the most, free movement, has been taken away from them.
Here in Kyrgyzstan, cemeteries line the roads in homage to the Kyrgyz's recent history of nomadism. Even if you're dead, you should at least enjoy the sight of people traveling back and forth. You can't confine people like this behind artificial borders for long without asking for trouble.
More troubling for America, which props up the "stans'" ex-communist strongmen with CIA cash: We're deeply entrenched both politically and economically in a region that is unviable in both respects. Now that fissures are beginning to appear, it's time to alter America's role in this whole mess.
The only problem is, of course: Who the hell knows where Kyrgyzstan is anyway?
September 20, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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