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Farewell Barak: Uzbekistan Absorbs Kyrgyz Exclave As Part Of Historic Border Deal

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (left) meets in Bishkek in January 2023 with Sadyr Japarov, his third Kyrgyz president.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (left) meets in Bishkek in January 2023 with Sadyr Japarov, his third Kyrgyz president.

BARAK, Uzbekistan -- In the formerly Soviet countries of Central Asia, there are enclaves, exclaves, and now, ex-exclaves.

This month, with minimal fanfare and scant press coverage, the last remaining residents of the village of Barak found themselves leaving a foreign country to return to their homeland.

Not that it necessarily felt like that.

"It's really hard to leave," said Kuvat Turakulov, a lifelong resident of the village, in an interview in a car before he departed his home village.

"On the other hand, they resolved this issue for the better," his wife, Gulnaz, chimed in from the passenger seat, grinning. "They say they will build us a house."

"Yes, if you look at it from that side, it is good that the issue was resolved," Turakulov conceded.

The issue that Turakulov was referring to was Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan's disputed border, which after more than three decades and plenty of suffering along the way, is disputed no more.

In accordance with the terms of a bilateral agreement, Barak -- a 208-hectare cutout of Kyrgyz territory entirely surrounded by Uzbekistan -- was absorbed by the larger country, with Kyrgyzstan receiving an equivalent parcel of Uzbekistan's Andijon Province in exchange.

Barak residents are set to be permanently resettled in that area by the end of the summer.

The April 15 deadline for Barak's evacuation saw nearly a hundred houses and several government buildings stripped down to their core. Roofing, support beams, and anything else that might help in the rebuild was loaded onto trucks and carted to Kyrgyzstan.

A woman who spoke to RFE/RL complained she hadn't been given enough time to gather all of her firewood.

But residents' sense of loss might still be accompanied by a sense of relief.

A Barak resident speaks shortly before leaving her home.
A Barak resident speaks shortly before leaving her home.

While Soviet mapmakers have had many victims in Central Asia, the people of Barak were among the longest-suffering.

And that explains why Turakulov and his wife were among the last few hundred remaining in Barak at the end of a multistage exodus whose peaks coincided with troughs in Bishkek and Tashkent’s relationship – nadirs that at one stage looked like a prelude to war.

"On a practical level, these two countries have offered an example that proves that disputes need not be eternal," Bishkek-based political analyst Emil Juraev told RFE/RL.

Yet Juraev argues that the land swap deal that worked for Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is likely a "unique case" that may not be replicable for other exclaves in Central Asia.

So Close And Yet So Far

With Uzbekistan becoming the first country to impose hard borders in Central Asia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, life was never going to be easy for residents of Barak -- one of eight such isolated territories in the region historically known as the Ferghana Valley.

In Soviet times, villagers enjoyed free movement to the broader Osh region in the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, just a couple of kilometers away.

A Barak neighborhood
A Barak neighborhood

For Soviet cartographers, the independence-era ramifications of having pockets of one country awkwardly inserted into another were hardly a priority.

Crossing the border was often difficult for Barak locals, but things deteriorated sharply after 2010, when Uzbekistan shut its borders in response to deadly ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Tashkent later reopened some of those crossings but put the hex on the territory again in 2013, when it unilaterally blocked the shortest road connecting Barak to the Kyrgyz mainland.

This forced residents to make roundtrips of hundreds of kilometers to access goods and services in southern cities like Osh and Kara-Suu that were literally just a few kilometers over the border, while bringing in everyday products and farming equipment for the territory was a perennial pain.

At this point, relations between the two governments -- strained by disputes over water use as well as land -- were toxic.

In 2016, the countries mobilized their militaries close to a small mountain known in Uzbek as Ungar-Tepa and Unkur-Too in Kyrgyz.

But less than six months later, a major event occurred that would lead to improved relations.

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s inflexible authoritarian president, passed away.

The road that residents of the former Kyrgyz exclave of Barak had to take to Kyrgyzstan after Uzbekistan cut access to a shorter road in 2013.
The road that residents of the former Kyrgyz exclave of Barak had to take to Kyrgyzstan after Uzbekistan cut access to a shorter road in 2013.

New leader Shavkat Mirziyoev, who spent 13 years as Karimov’s prime minister, quickly signaled that he had very different views on neighborhood policy.

By 2017, border crossings that had been mostly closed since Kyrgyzstan’s year of political turmoil were thrown open, reuniting families that lived on either side of the frontier and boosting trade.

Life became somewhat easier, too, for the people of Barak.

But at least half the village’s population had by then already moved to new land allocated to them in the Kara-Suu district of Kyrgyzstan's Osh Province.

And while Kyrgyz authorities say that 98 houses were dismantled in this month’s final relocation, a Kyrgyz lawmaker speaking in the parliament in February 2022 said that just 15 families remained in the territory.

Farmers -- the main occupation in Barak -- were struggling because Uzbekistan was not providing them with irrigation water, claimed the lawmaker, Alisher Kozuev.

And of course Tashkent had long eyed Barak as a legitimate gain in any border deal.

Every Exclave Is Different

While Mirziyoev's determination was enough on the Uzbek side, on the Kyrgyz side, traditionally combustible politics made moving toward an agreement over the 1,380-kilometer border more difficult.

In his first presidential term, the Uzbek head of state met with three Kyrgyz presidents -- Almazbek Atambaev, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, and Sadyr Japarov.

Despite early progress, work on border delimitation had mostly stalled by 2018.

The breakthrough came with Japarov's arrival to power in 2020 after yet another bout of political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan.

Following successful talks with the Uzbek side, Japarov’s government forced the agreement through parliament, steamrolling objections related to a strategic reservoir on Kyrgyz territory that Uzbekistan increased its control over through the agreement.

More than 20 critics of the border deal were jailed in the second half of 2022, some of whom are still behind bars awaiting trial on coup-plotting charges.

But Mirziyoev was effusive in his praise for his opposite number when he arrived in Bishkek on a state visit in January 2023.

“If not for his political will, we would have not reached today's result. We could have said like we used to that we will solve these problems tomorrow or the day after. Well, tomorrow lasted 30 years and the problems weren't solved," the Uzbek president said.

Humanitarian aid being delivered to the Kyrgyz exclave Barak in Uzbekistan on January 25, 2013.
Humanitarian aid being delivered to the Kyrgyz exclave Barak in Uzbekistan on January 25, 2013.

Japarov is also putting his name on the relocation of Barak families.

Osh Governor Elchibek Dzhantaev said in an interview with RFE/RL that Japarov had donated 270 million soms (around $3 million) from his “personal fund” to provide permanent accommodation for the villagers, who are now mostly living in temporary accommodation in the province.

The deadline for the relocation is August 31 -- Kyrgyzstan’s independence day.

If Barak is an example of a land-swap proposal meeting the needs of both parties, then one doesn’t need to look very far for the opposite.

Comments by Japarov’s top ally and national security chief, Kamchybek Tashiev, in 2021 about a potential swap that would have seen Kyrgyzstan gain control of the Vorukh exclave in Kyrgyzstan that belongs to Tajikistan were met with anger from Vorukh locals, not to mention a former top Tajik official who publicly lambasted Tashiev.

Within two months the two countries engaged in a border conflict of unprecedented scale that left dozens dead on each side, a toll subsequently surpassed by even deadlier clashes the following year.

But after over a 1 1/2 years of no notable violence, and a stream of optimistic updates on border delimitation talks, there is real hope that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can also go all the way in resolving their disputed frontier.

That will depend on the willingness of both sides “to take on the difficult decisions,” argued Juraev, the analyst, who says Vorukh's status is unlikely to change.

“It’s a massively more difficult situation, with around 40,000 people in Vorukh compared to just a few hundred in Barak,” he said.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

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