Over the past weekend, a hostage crisis developed in the enclave of Sokh, a complex little region located inside Kyrgyzstan. The Sokh exclave (enclave versus exclave here) is part of Uzbekistan’s territory, though it is completely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan and is in one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions in Kyrgyzstan. Sokh is also poor, dually dependant on agriculture and young people trying to find work in Russia. The border problems between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan compound the difficulties both of finding work and establishing infrastructure in Sokh.
Tense borders make regions inherently volatile, and having a Uzbek border inside of Kyrgyzstan magnifies the issue. Uzbekistan tightly controls passage through Sokh, which lies on a major transport route. Additionally, Sokh is dependent on people moving in and out of it to seek economic opportunity, so persistent tension on the border is a given. In this light, it’s not surprising that a crisis broke out in Sokh this weekend. This crisis has (thus far) not resulted in any reported deaths and appears to have been resolved, though injuries have been reported.
On January 5th, RFE/RL reported that residents of Sokh (controlled by Uzbekistan, so Uzbek citizens) attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were installing power lines, presumably in protest to their construction. The border guards then fired warning shots into the air to disperse the crowd,
The next day, on January 6th, a group of Uzbek citizens from Sokh returned to the border post and took Kyrgyz citizens as hostages. In the early morning and later in the afternoon of January 7th, the approximately 40 hostages were returned back Kyrgyzstan’s authorities.
David Trilling of EurasiaNet points out more recent incidents in Sokh, including a shooting on January 4th of an Kyrgyz smuggler by Uzbek border guards – an event that likely contributed to making the environment in Sokh more vulnerable to disruption this past weekend.
RFE/RL also did a contextual look at the Sokh district, examining the two decades of tensions surrounding the tiny Uzbek territory:
In 1999, Tashkent determined that militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were using Sokh as a base of operations against both countries. Uzbekistan significantly increased its military presence in the exclave and began mining its borders. Kyrgyzstan claims that mines have been laid in Kyrgyz territory and that Uzbek soldiers periodically terrorize local civilians on both sides of the border. Several Kyrgyz citizens have been killed by mines or gunfire while trying to cross Sokh.
Within this little enclave, larger conflicts brewing between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are manifested. The two countries are simmering with disagreements, such as resource control, border issues and power struggles. All of these larger regional dynamics are irregularly played out in the 350 square km of Sokh, primarily at the expense of residents and laypeople.
For additional reading on the differences between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, have a look at this article from UzNews, an independent Uzbek news source. It chronicles the daily differences between life in the capitals of each respective country, including something as basic as ‘people sit freely under some monument and no-one is hassling anyone’ (Bishkek).