There is wariness, though, particularly in Kyrgyzstan, about jobs and ethnic tensions.
Things between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have never been this good.
That was the message with which Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev concluded his visit to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, late last month.
“We have no more problems and issues. It is the first time in history, over the 31 years since Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan gained independence, that we have had this level of relationship,” he said.
Behind the rhetoric are some palpable adjustments that are generating excitement and goodwill on the ground.
People reliant on trade for their livelihood have welcomed the prospect of eased rules for crossing the border. Hopes are high that these will generate fresh business opportunities and more employment.
There is wariness, though, particularly in Kyrgyzstan. Some fear that an uncontrolled influx of Uzbek nationals seeking work could adversely affect the local job market and imperil inter-communal dialogue. The politically contentious way in which the Kyrgyz government steamrollered its way to the border agreement that led to this breakthrough is also lingering uneasily in the air.
At some point in the coming couple of months, Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationals will start being able to cross their shared border with just their national ID cards. Gulhumor Mamazhanova, a 33-year-old resident of Sura-Tash, a village in Kyrgyzstan’s southern Osh region, is delighted.
“My family lives on trade,” she says. “I buy things everyday in the Andijan province in Uzbekistan, and I bring them over to sell in Osh. To cross the border, you need your international passport. I have had to change mine twice because the pages fill up so quickly with stamps.”
Gulmira Borubayeva, a spokeswoman for the State Border Service, said this expedited system will be available to people traveling by road, air or railway alike.
“Trips using ID cards will become possible in two-three months, once the [relevant] protocol has been ratified and approved by both countries,” Borubayeva said. “In the future, the procedure [of putting stamps in passports] will disappear as information about citizens crossing the border will be recorded electronically.”
This ease of cross-border travel will make it viable for minibus companies to offer routes between major cities like Andijan, in Uzbekistan, and Osh, in Kyrgyzstan. It should take only an hour to drive from one to the other, but the impermeability of the border has historically made crossing with a vehicle a headache few are prepared to countenance.
As economics expert Erkin Abdrazakov pointed out in an interview to Eurasianet, there are other conversations taking place that augur positive developments for trade.
“At a business forum held in Bishkek during [Mirziyoyev’s] visit, there was a discussion around the important issue of the green corridor,” Abdrazakov said, using a term referring to the transportation of farmed products. “Now, the waiting time at the border checkpoint for cargoes of perishable goods will be reduced several times over, which will increase the volume of traffic.”
Kyrgyz food exports to Uzbekistan comprise things like meat and dairy products, while Uzbeks send back fruit and vegetables. Smoother borders will lead to the appearance of ever more joint ventures and investments, not to speak of tourism and knowledge transfers, Abdrazakov said.
If the changes do not happen from one day to the next, it is because there are procedural and technical fixes that need to be put in place, Mirlan Israilov, head of the external relations department of the Osh city hall, told Eurasianet. Before the surge of traffic can happen, the Kara-Suu and Aravan checkpoints – on the border between southern Kyrgyzstan and eastern Uzbekistan – will need to be refurbished, expanded and equipped with the needed technology, Israilov said.
This new chapter is not all about trade, though. Like many ethnic Uzbeks, Ziyoda Abdullayeva, a 28-year-old resident of Kyrgyzstan’s Kara-Suu District, is just happy about what this means for her family.
“I often visit Uzbekistan on family matters,” Abdullayeva said. “I have cousins on my mother’s side living there. Whenever they have family events, whether it is a feast or mourning somebody’s passing, I have to go. And if you don’t have a passport, the border guards don’t let you through.”
Not everybody is so relaxed at the prospect of large numbers of people coming and going. Some in Kyrgyzstan are concerned that the simplified procedure for crossing the border will enable Uzbeks to arrive en masse, providing cheap labor and thereby driving up joblessness among local people.
“The population of our neighbor is 36 million, and we are only seven million. Just think what is going to happen when they start coming here in droves in search of work,” said Amangeldi Turdaliyev, a resident of Osh. “Many people will start hiring Uzbeks, because they are willing to work for half the price and, moreover, they are more responsible and decent.”
That last point reflects a crude generalization widely accepted as a given among even Kyrgyz people. Namely, that Uzbeks are typically pious and averse to drinking alcohol, and that they accordingly make for dependable casual laborers.
Calls are already being made for the government to take an active role in regulating the labor market in farming and industry to avoid a flareup in tensions further down the line.
Commentary in Kyrgyz social media spaces mixes concern over the job market with residual disgruntlement over a historic border demarcation deal that ended with Uzbekistan assuming de facto control over an important reservoir. When opposition politicians and activists began to coalesce late last year in their objection to the border agreement, dozens of them were scooped up and thrown into jail. Many are still behind bars possibly awaiting trials on what many observers believe to be spurious charges of plotting to overthrow the government.
One Facebook user, Seidaly Myrzakmatov, argued that Kyrgyzstan was in a difficult position on labor.
“Do you think if Kyrgyzstanis go to Uzbekistan in search of work, they will find it?” Myrzakmatov asked. “Their labor market is protected, unlike ours. I am not a nationalist, but we have enough of our own Uzbeks. The mass entry of citizens from a neighboring country will worsen the social situation of our population, because they will try to integrate here. That will affect the ethnic balance, the number of ethnic Uzbeks will rise sharply, and this is dangerous.”
That sentiment was echoed by another Kyrgyz Facebook user, Bakytbek Absattarov, who made a nod in his commentary to the kind of inter-communal violence that tore through southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, leaving hundreds dead.
“They [the Uzbeks] have already taken over the service sector and trade. And what will happen next when they can enter here with ID cards?” Absattarov wrote. “The Kyrgyz government must protect not only our national interests, but also the labor rights of the local population, otherwise enmity will arise, and that will lead to bloodshed.”