Central Asia: Tensions Grow in the Fergana Valley

7 MINS READOct 8, 2013 | 10:27 GMT
Central Asia: Tensions Grow in the Fergana Valley

Editor's NoteThis is the second installment of a two-part series on the Fergana Valley region of Central Asia, its complex demographics and the history and future of conflicts in the area. Click here for Part 1.

In the coming years, the Fergana Valley is likely to experience increased volatility as the population continues to grow and so does the competition for its land and resources. Given the importance of the location of the Fergana Valley, this is bound to draw in powers with competing interests in the region, including Russia, China and the United States.

The weakening and eventual fall of the Soviet Union brought change to Central Asia. The reforms of glasnost and perestroika under Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev had the practical effect of unleashing a wave of nationalism that had been established and subsequently repressed under the Soviet system. This was particularly acute in the ethnically mixed Fergana Valley, where the identities of people became increasingly associated with their nations and corresponding titular republics. 

It was the economic changes and political reforms that brought tensions to a head. The modification and weakening of the Soviet agricultural system based on collective farms created new competition over land and resources. Consequently, in June 1990 a land dispute broke out in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, which is in the heart of the Fergana Valley and near the border with Uzbekistan. Clashes over rights to farmland turned violent between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the latter of which made up a significant minority (more than 25 percent) of the city's population but were underrepresented in local decision-making. Given that this occurred while the Soviet Union was intact, Soviet troops were deployed to stop the violence, but not before hundreds were killed (estimates range from 300 to 600) and thousands were injured.

Escalating Border Tensions

This event foreshadowed a broader period of volatility in the Fergana Valley (and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union). When the Soviet Union collapsed one year later, Central Asian states gained their independence for the first time in modern history, but they inherited the borders established in the Soviet era. This newfound independence coincided with a worsening of living conditions as the Soviet military-industrial complex broke down, thereby fueling nationalism that was particularly acute in the ethnically mixed Fergana Valley. Moreover, the borders (which were now administered by poorly funded and trained local security forces) were poorly demarcated, which created permanent tensions in relations among Central Asian states. The border regions of the Fergana Valley became especially tense, with skirmishes among locals occurring on a regular basis. 

Fergana Valley Demographics Map

While these skirmishes remained at a relatively low level, in June 2010, large-scale ethnic violence erupted once again in the region between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, starting in Osh but also spreading to nearby Jalal-Abad. What made these clashes different than the previous disputes is that they took place on the border between two sovereign states, rather than two republics under Soviet authority as they did in 1990. Rather than the Soviet military intervening, the Uzbek military began a limited incursion into Kyrgyz territory early on before withdrawing and opening its borders to Uzbek refugees. Uzbekistan withdrew due to protests from Russia, which still maintains significant influence in the region and a military presence in Kyrgyzstan. Order was eventually re-established, but not before 2,000 people were killed and more than 100,000 people were displaced. Since then, low-level incidents have continued to occur in the border areas of the Fergana Valley, with border disputes and ethnic tensions continuing to serve as a basis for instability and occasional violence. 

Other Sources of Strife in the Valley

Border disputes have not been the only destabilizing factor in the Fergana Valley. Fergana has traditionally been one of the most religiously conservative regions in Central Asia, due to its history of being a settled area as opposed to other more nomadic parts of Central Asia. This region was the birthplace of radical Islamist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which emerged out of the Namangan district of Uzbekistan in opposition to Uzbek President Islam Karimov's secular rule. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan conducted numerous attacks in the Fergana Valley and was the region's largest security threat before being driven out following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Regional divisions within the Fergana countries themselves — a legacy of pre-Soviet Central Asia that was never fully eliminated — also have undermined stability in the valley. Kyrgyzstan's north-south split has precipitated two revolutions in the country in the last 10 years, with power centers based in Bishkek and the north contending with those based in the southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Tajikistan fell into civil war immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union largely due to regional divisions, with the Kulyab region of the Fergana Valley and the Khujand district pitted against the eastern provinces. Uzbekistan also has witnessed instability due to regional divisions, most notably out of Andijan, where an uprising against Karimov was suppressed in 2005. 

The Fergana Valley's Volatile Future

All of these issues could resurface in the coming months and years. Regional divisions continue to pose a significant threat to the stability of each country, as can be seen by southern politicians' attempting a coup in Kyrgyzstan, ongoing security issues in Tajikistan's restive east and a looming succession showdown in Uzbekistan. Border tensions also continue to be a problem, as the recent dispute between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — only the latest in several incidents in the past few years — shows. The potential for another large-scale bout of ethnic violence remains as long as the larger issues of border demarcation and ethnic distribution remain unaddressed. And while the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other Islamist groups have not posed the same security threat to the region since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the upcoming U.S. drawdown in 2014 has raised concerns that militancy could become a growing problem in the future, albeit with new complexities and changes to the militant landscape in Central Asia. There are also indications of growing religiosity and radicalization among the population (especially youths) in areas like southern Kyrgyzstan and in Tajikistan. 

Water Resources in Central Asia

Water Resources in Central Asia

Compounding these issues is the large population growth expected in Central Asia in general and the Fergana Valley in particular in coming decades. According to U.N. estimates, the population of Central Asia is expected to rise by 15 percent between 2010 and 2020, although each country has already exceeded the U.N. population estimates. By 2050, the population is expected to have risen by 35-40 percent. Most of this growth will take place in urbanized areas like the Fergana Valley, where birth rates are 2.5 children per woman in Uzbekistan, 3 in Kyrgyzstan and 3.7 in Tajikistan. This will place further pressure on already scarce resources in the region — particularly water — and create greater competition for jobs in an already underdeveloped and underemployed region. Therefore, the already tense security environment can be expected to see more demographic and economic pressures in the coming years.

Population Density in the Fergana Valley

Population Density in the Fergana Valley

This has implications not only for populations within the Fergana countries of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but also for external powers with interests in the region. Russia, with its military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, will be especially concerned as social stability in these countries comes under strain. In addition, China has made substantial economic inroads into Central Asia over the past few years in the infrastructure, transit and energy sectors, and these are also at risk as instability in the region grows. The United States, despite its drawdown in Afghanistan, will likely maintain a residual presence in the country, and the logistical, counternarcotic and counterterrorism cooperation from Central Asia will continue to be important for Washington. Numerous countries have an interest in the future stability of the Fergana Valley and the wider region, but it will be increasingly difficult to maintain. 

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