The skirmish occurred July 17 around 5 p.m. near the Kyrgyz village of Bulak-Bashi in the Jalal-Abad region near the border with Uzbekistan. Residents working on a road repair project reportedly ignored warnings from Uzbek border guards to stop work because the road passed through an unmarked part of the border. The situation escalated into a shootout between Uzbek and Kyrgyz border guards, resulting in the deaths of a border guard from each side and injuring two Kyrgyz citizens. A day after the incident, the head of Uzbekistan's border police was dismissed, though an Uzbek government official said his removal was not related to the border incident.
Skirmishes between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have occurred several times in recent years. Uzbekistan frequently accuses Kyrgyz citizens and border guards of trespassing, and there were at least three cases of Kyrgyz nationals being shot by Uzbek border guards for illegally crossing the border in 2011. The perennial conflict stems from the complex border structure in Central Asia, particularly in the Fergana Valley, the demographic and agricultural heart of Central Asia. Populations of ethnic Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks overlap in this area, but national borders do not reflect the ethic divisions, fostering tensions among ethnic groups within each state. (Keeping these countries internally divided and unstable was in fact the intention when Josef Stalin drew up their modern borders in the Soviet era.)
These underlying strains most recently resurfaced in June 2010 when border tensions escalated into widespread ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, primarily in the ethnically mixed provinces of Jalal-Abad and Osh. This created a tense standoff between the governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with Tashkent considering military intervention before Russia dispatched military personnel and engaged in humanitarian efforts through the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. While this persuaded Uzbekistan to refrain from military action, tensions between Tashkent and Bishkek persist.
Uzbekistan has been concerned by Russia's support of Kyrgyzstan and its military buildup in the country (as well as in neighboring Tajikistan). Additionally, Tashkent's recent departure from membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization has fueled speculation that Uzbekistan could be preparing to distance itself from Moscow and enhance its security relationship with the United States and perhaps even China. This could change the dynamics of the region, given that Uzbekistan is the most pivotal country in Central Asia and has long been the region's most unpredictable actor in terms of its relationship with Russia.
Therefore, while the latest border skirmish is not altogether uncommon, it comes at a tense time when regional players are reconsidering their security posture and orientation. In the meantime, there are a number of other ongoing security issues in the region, such as a spate of border incidents in Kazakhstan and threats of jihadist elements resurfacing in Tajikistan. The recent border incident between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan should be viewed within this broader context, and as the region has previously shown, one small incident could quickly turn into a larger conflagration.