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Protesters arrested in Kyrgyzstan over secret treaty to hand over reservoir and arable lands to Uzbekistan

More than 20 activists and politicians were arrested in Kyrgyzstan following protests against the delimitation of the border with Uzbekistan near the Kempir-Abad Reservoir and the related secret treaty which was signed by the parties on September 26. Many of those arrested were women, something unheard of in Kyrgyzstan, local journalists explained to The Insider. The trials were held on October 24 from 6:00 pm to 5:30 am and in all cases the courts upheld the legality and validity of the detention of the activists. According to the information received from human rights activists, the court turned a blind eye to violations during the detentions. The court hearings themselves were also accompanied by numerous violations. As a result, 19 people were arrested until December 20-23, the fate of the rest is yet to be decided.

The Kempir-Abad Reservoir (called the Andijan Reservoir in Uzbekistan) was built in 1983, with the construction of the corresponding dam dating back to the 1960s. The area of the reservoir is 4,400 hectares; it is fed by the Tar, Kara-Kuldja and Kara-Darya rivers; the reservoir is the source of the Fergana Canal, which is important for Uzbekistan. In the late 1960s, due to the construction of the dam, a significant portion of the Kyrgyz SSR was flooded; in exchange, the Uzbek SSR gave it 4,127 hectares of land in the border areas. It is this argument that the Uzbek side brings to the table, insisting that the reservoir be handed over to it. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan believes that Uzbekistan had been leasing the flooded land and had actually compensated for the damage done to the other country’s property, which does not entitle it to the other country’s territory.

In the fall, it was reported that Kyrgyz President Sadyr Zhaparov planned to hand over the reservoir to Uzbekistan, as he himself later confirmed. In September 2022 in Bishkek, Zhaparov received Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov, whereafter it was announced that the parties were ready to sign a treaty on the transfer of the reservoir to Uzbekistan.

“We came to an agreement according to which we will create a joint venture and manage the dam together on a 50/50 basis,” Zhaparov said. “That way we will see to it that the water level does not exceed the 900 mark. Now it is possible to pump water off to the villages nearest the reservoir. There was no such opportunity before. Based on the historical archival documents, the dam was built in 1965 by the Uzbek side. We did not invest a penny into it”.

Zhaparov insists that the people of the republic will only benefit from the transfer of the reservoir, omitting to mention that it’s not the reservoir that people are concerned about but rather the arable lands nearby, which will most likely also pass on to Uzbekistan (the draft treaty is still under wraps). The land near Kempir-Abad has actually been the main source of income for the locals for many years; they have been participating in tenders and leasing land plots. They also grow the famous red Uzgen Devzira rice, which is used to make Central Asia's best pilaf, according to Kloop.

The authorities in both countries promise that Uzbekistan will not fence off the area and residents of Kyrgyzstan will be able to continue to use it to their advantage, but people do not believe it - things may change when, for example, the president of Uzbekistan changes. If Uzbekistan bans Kyrgyz families from using the fields, many will have to leave in search of work, locals say.

The draft treaty on state borders with Uzbekistan has not yet been made public, but it is known that Uzbekistan is receiving the Kempir-Abad reservoir in exchange for lands in other areas, and that the new border around the reservoir will run along the “900th horizontal line”. It is an isoline on a topographic map that encircles the terrain elevated 900 meters above sea level, Kloop writes, presenting a map showing the territory to be given to Uzbekistan superimposed over the arable lands used by the inhabitants of Kyrgyzstan. The publication draws attention to the fact that the border line is not the result of professional cartographic research and does not claim to be one hundred percent accurate.

The 900th horizontal line (marked in red) overlapping the fields at the mouths of three rivers - Kurshab (left), Kara-Darya (center), and Zhazy (top right). Nearby fields of locals are marked in yellow
The 900th horizontal line (marked in red) overlapping the fields at the mouths of three rivers - Kurshab (left), Kara-Darya (center), and Zhazy (top right). Nearby fields of locals are marked in yellow

On October 22, politician Ravshan Dzheyenbekov announced the establishment of the Committee to protect Kempir-Abad reservoir; before that, opponents of the transfer of the reservoir held a protest march in the Uzgen district. Zhaparov called them provocateurs. The Interior Ministry said a proceeding was initiated against members of the Committee to Protect the Reservoir for preparing mass disturbances. During a 24-hour period on October 23 and 24, more than 20 politicians and activists were detained and later arrested until December by a court order. Most of the detentions took place on October 23, but the next day the protests resumed and became more numerous, 400 people marched, demanding, among other things, the release of those arrested.

In Uzbekistan, the situation is much more indifferent, the Uzbek publication Hook reports. The authors say it is difficult to imagine that protests would begin over the issue, while in Kyrgyzstan, on the contrary, the population is quite active politically. It is the Kyrgyz nationalists who are the main electorate of Zhaparov, whom they actually brought to power, and it is they who are now destroying his rating because of his unpopular decisions on the national border.

“They tried to do it publicly before, and they failed,” says an article written by Uzbek journalists. “Now they are discussing it behind closed doors, but people are protesting because they don't understand what decisions the authorities are making and what territories will be given away. And because of this, the issue of border territories has not been resolved in any manner”.

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