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A border deal washed in tears Kyrgyzstan reached a landmark agreement with Uzbekistan, but its critics are behind bars
Thirty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, one of the Fergana Valley’s border disputes is finally being laid to rest. In January, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan clinched a landmark demarcation deal, which officials hailed as a major turning point in bilateral relations. But what appears to be a victory for Bishkek and Tashkent feels less triumphant on the ground. Kyrgyzstan’s handover of the strategic Kempir-Abad reservoir — or the Andijan reservoir, as it is known in Uzbekistan — has been a particular point of discontent. More than 20 opponents of the land swap are in jail awaiting trial on felony charges of instigating “mass unrest.” And residents of villages near the reservoir fear losing their land — or ending up on the other side of the border. In a dispatch from the region, The Beet reports on the “Kempir-Abad case,” local anxieties, and the upside of the border deal.
For safety reasons, the author of this report has chosen to remain anonymous and some people’s names have been changed or omitted.
This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
Kasiet Mamyrbay, a 23-year-old lawyer from Bishkek, is spending her Saturday at the KurulTime Bloggers Festival, a networking and professional development event for content creators from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. While Kasiet has unwittingly become something of an online influencer in recent months, that’s not why she’s here; this event is a rare chance to spend time with friends and “recharge her batteries,” she says.
Five months ago, in late October 2022, Kasiet was on a work trip to Naryn, a city in the Tian Shan Mountains of central Kyrgyzstan, when she got a call from a human rights activist back in Bishkek. Security officers, she learned, had raided her family’s home and arrested her mother, 47-year-old human rights activist Rita Karasartova. Within days, the authorities had charged Karasartova and more than 20 other activists, journalists, and politicians with “organizing mass unrest.”
Kasiet traveled back to Bishkek immediately, but there was little she could do. For the first few months after the arrest, Kasiet could talk to her mother when she appeared in court. But ever since the authorities classified the case without explanation in January, she’s only seen her from a distance, during the moments when Karasartova is being escorted into the courtroom. “[We communicate] through letters,” Kasiet explains. “She’s always writing good stuff, like, ‘I’m okay, how are you?’ But I know [she’s] not okay. The detention center’s conditions are really awful.”
According to Kasiet, her mother shares a small, five-by-six-meter (16-by-20-foot) cell with eight other people. The inmates are only allowed to leave the cell for 40 minutes a day, when they’re taken to a small exercise yard. Investigators from Kyrgyzstan’s National Center for the Prevention of Torture have found that the prison’s conditions consistently fail to meet international standards in a wide array of areas and, in some cases, constitute abuse.
“I talked with the National Center for the Prevention of Torture, and I asked them to send her a psychologist. [After visiting her, the psychologist] said she hasn’t been sleeping well, and that she has really bad dreams, with blood and that kind of stuff,” Kasiet says.
Kasiet lives with her two brothers. Their father passed away five years ago, shortly after their mother became the first woman in Kyrgyzstan’s history to run for president. After Karasartova’s arrest, Kasiet took on a second job to help provide for her younger brother, who’s only 15. “I work from 8 [a.m.] to 10 p.m. I don’t see my little brother; I just give him money to take to school,” she tells The Beet. “We don’t communicate [much], and it’s hard for him. Especially because he’s in ninth grade, and I don’t know how to communicate with him.”
Years in the making
The case against Rita Karasartova and her two dozen co-defendants has its roots in the negotiations to demarcate the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that began in 2016, shortly after Shavkat Mirziyoyev replaced Uzbekistan's longtime dictator, Islam Karimov, as president.
The two countries finally appeared to make a breakthrough in 2021, just months after Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov catapulted from prison to the Kyrgyz presidency. Under a preliminary agreement announced by Kyrgyzstan’s security chief Kamchybek Tashiev in March of that year, Uzbekistan was slated to gain control of the Kempir-Abad reservoir, a key piece of infrastructure the Soviet government built on the Kyrgyz side of the border in the 1970s to supply water to the Uzbek SSR.
After years of bloody disputes along the 1,314-kilometer (816-mile) dividing line, many welcomed Tashiev’s proclamation that the border issues had been resolved “100 percent” and that “there is not a single patch of disputed territory left.” But some Kyrgyzstanis saw a glaring problem: ownership of the land containing the Kempir-Abad reservoir had never been in dispute.
The concession drove hundreds of people in southern Kyrgyzstan (as well as Kyrgyz people as far away as Moscow) to protest. The rallies only died down after Tashiev traveled to the reservoir and personally assured demonstrators that he would renegotiate the deal to satisfy their demands. Then, in September 2022, Tashiev signaled that Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were preparing to sign a final border agreement in the near future, though he didn’t reveal any details. The news ignited more protests, with some participants warning that they would “take unexpected steps and do unthinkable things” if they felt the government was deceiving them.
When members of the relevant committee in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament met to approve the border agreement on October 10, they did so in secret.
It was against this backdrop that Rita Karasartova and dozens of other public figures and concerned citizens formed a group called the Kempir-Abad Defense Committee. According to Kasiet Mamyrbay, the committee’s only demand, at least initially, was for the Japarov administration to conduct the remainder of the negotiations openly rather than behind closed doors. On October 23–24, more than 20 members of the committee, including Karasartova, were arrested and jailed pending trial.
Less than two weeks later, Kyrgyzstan’s and Uzbekistan’s foreign ministers signed an accord that granted both countries joint rights to managing the Kempir-Abad reservoir, but Kyrgyzstan officially ceded its territory to Uzbekistan in exchange for various other disputed territories along the border. On November 29, Sadyr Japarov signed the entire treaty into law.
In January 2023, Uzbekistani President Mirziyoyev flew to Bishkek for a triumphant state visit. He extolled the border deal as a long-awaited solution to “complex and supposedly irresolvable issues,” while his Kyrgyz counterpart called it “truly historic.” In a letter published the same day, the relatives of the imprisoned Kempir-Abad Defense Committee members reminded Japarov that the agreement he was celebrating had been “washed in our tears.”
‘The border is chasing us’
Askarbek (name changed) lives with his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren in a house that his father built in Kyzyl-Oktyabr, a small village on the border with Uzbekistan. The family’s farm overlooks the Kempir-Abad reservoir itself; during the winter months, when the water level is low and the section of the basin behind their house is dry, they let their animals graze on it.
State officials have promised that the new border won’t interfere with farmers’ livelihoods in the areas around the reservoir, claiming that it will actually make their lives easier. But the government’s demarcation team hasn’t yet arrived to mark the border officially, and Askarbek has his doubts. “Demarcation will happen soon,” he tells The Beet. “We think they could take our land today or tomorrow. [...] This house, where we’re sitting and talking right now, could become Uzbekistan’s land.”
Askarbek’s anxiety stems from past experience. The village where he was born and raised no longer exists; it stood in an area the Soviet authorities flooded in the 1960s in order to build the Kempir-Abad reservoir. “The border is chasing us,” he says. “How much longer do we have? [...] Our parents suffered to get from there to here. Now we’re suffering. Where will we live? No one can give us any guarantees, no one can tell us that we won’t have to move somewhere. We live with anxiety every day.”
On Kyzyl-Oktyabr’s narrow main street, two elderly men sporting kalpaks are sitting in chairs in front of a house, chatting and greeting passersby. When asked about the Kempir-Abad reservoir and the border deal, they’re eager to go into the weeds, from the exact amount of cotton Uzbekistan’s Kempir-Abad-irrigated territories were supposed to yield per the original construction agreement, to a local visit by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s.
Unable to remember all of the details, one of them gets frustrated. “The people who know this story best are in custody,” he says. “There are women in prison. [Including one woman who is] over 70 years old. [...] All of this was done by Tashiev. Japarov is just following his lead.”
“Kyrgyzstan’s government is not doing very well. Soon, these people will lose power,” the other man concludes. “We shouldn't have given away Kempir-Abad. Kempir-Abad is Kyrgyzstan’s land.”
‘When we’re divided, we’re weak’
The Japarov administration’s crackdown on dissent notwithstanding, the agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is a momentous achievement. As Central Asia expert Bruce Pannier noted when the deal was signed in late January, their shared border was the most dangerous one in Central Asia for more than two decades after the USSR’s collapse.
In addition to the delineation treaty, Japarov and Mirziyoyev signed a number of other cooperation agreements, including plans to launch a joint automobile plant and a textile factory in Kyrgyzstan, as well as a passport-free travel regime for citizens of both countries.
Chynara Temirova, a public-policy expert from Kyrgyzstan, expects the net outcome of the deal to be positive. “With all respect to the people living there, and understanding all of these sensitive issues, I think it’s a very good, big achievement that this border issue with Uzbekistan was solved,” she says. “It’s much better to have a good relationship with your neighboring countries, regardless of how authoritarian they may be.”
In Temirova’s view, Kyrgyzstan could stand to make a similar agreement on its largely undemarcated border with Tajikistan, which has been the site of numerous deadly clashes in recent years. “Maybe we need to give them some land — this dry land that nobody can use for anything — to have clear borders and stop people from being killed,” she says.
“When you look at the news in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, they have the same problems [as people in Kyrgyzstan]. They’re also ordinary people, just surviving in this world,” Temirova adds. “Central Asian countries, especially given the events happening in Ukraine, should be united, not divided. Because when we’re divided, we’re weak.”
* * *
Since her mother’s arrest, Kasiet has become the unofficial public face of the fight for justice for the defendants in the “Kempir-Abad case.” For one thing, she speaks Kyrgyz, Russian, and English, making her an ideal messenger for the activists’ cause. She’s also confident that imprisoning a mother and daughter at the same time is a line the authorities won’t cross. “It would be out of character,” she says.
But the last five months have nonetheless taken a toll. Kasiet says she used to dream of becoming Kyrgyzstan’s education minister and reforming the school system. Now she hopes to move abroad. “All of my friends used to know me as a huge patriot. I was always saying, ‘We need to develop Kyrgyzstan, we’re such an awesome country, we have great people,’” she recalls. “Now I’ve absolutely changed my thinking. Because a country that doesn’t respect your rights as a human being, that tramples on those rights, [is a place where] you can’t feel safe. And where you can’t feel safe, you can’t have a life.”
Kasiet says she doesn’t expect her mother to leave the country even after her eventual release. “Mom will stay in Kyrgyzstan — no matter what. But me? I think I’ll leave. Right after she gets free,” she says with a sigh. “I’m fed up.”
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