Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have now agreed on the delimitation of 85 percent of their borders, but they have not yet succeeded in agreeing on the borders between the exclaves of each on the territory of the other. Some in Bishkek think this could be addressed by an exchange of territories, but others in Tashkent remain totally opposed.
Despite the widespread view that the borders of the Soviet Union republics on which the post-Soviet states are based were immutable, there are dozens of major and more than 200 minor transfers of territory from one republic to another in Soviet times. (On this, see this author’s “Can Republic Borders Be Changed?” RFE/RL Report on the USSR, 28 September 1990.)
That view was reinforced in February 1992 when the first Bush Administration announced that the United States would not recognize “any secession from secession” in the post-Soviet states, a position that explains the US position not only on Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia but also on Russian-occupied Crimea.
But despite that principle, in fact, many of the post-Soviet states in Central Asia in particular have adjusted their borders in order to reach bilateral agreements on their delimitation and the Russian Federation has even adjusted its borders with China over the course of the last 25 years.
Most of these changes have been small, involving 100 hectares or less; but now some are at least discussing the possibility of a larger exchange of territory between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan so that the two could resolve the neuralgic problems of the enclaves of the one on the territory of the other.
These include most prominently the Uzbek exclaves in Kyrgyzstan, Sokh with some 50,000 people and Shakhimardan with 5,000. In the event of an exchange, these could become part of Kyrgyzstan and their residents Kyrgyz nationals (unless they were to leave) and Bishkek would compensate Tashkent by land elsewhere along the current administrative border.
Anvar Mokeyev, former Kyrgyz ambassador to Tashkent, says that such an exchange would face many difficulties including the still open question as to whether the residents of the exclaves would want to remain in Kyrgyzstan or those in land transferred to Uzbekistan would want to remain in that country (ng.ru/cis/2017-10-05/6_7088_kirgisia.html).
Bakhtier Ergashev, a researcher at the Center for Traditional Cultures, sees another obstacle to such an exchange: there is no Kyrgyz equivalent in Uzbekistan to Sokh in Kyrgyzstan. The closest is the Barak exclave, but it has a population of less than a thousand and a total area of four hectares. For a trade to work, other territories would have to be included.
The political analyst aacknowledges that there have been small exchanges of territory between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as those two countries have worked to delimit their common border. That kind of thing is “normal practice in the process of defining borders.” But larger exchanges of land and population are something else entirely.
According to Ergash, “the exchange of the enclaves would be a big mistake which would have serious social consequences for the entire territory of the Fergana Valley. But here there is already another question: would citizens of Uzbekistan agree to become citizens of Kyrgyzstan?” The answer almost certainly is no given the instability in the latter.
Given these arguments, the possibility of an exchange is undoubtedly small; but what is intriguing is that officials in many countries keep bringing up this possibility as the only way they can see to move forward on otherwise intractable issues.