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Tensions in Ferghana: How Much Should We Worry This Time?

16/06/2009

Brazilian football wonder-coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had a rough time of it here in London: heralded upon his arrival at Chelsea last summer, he was unceremoniously sacked in February after a woeful series of matches saw the team slip to fourth.

Yet something tells me he may one day gaze wistfully upon his brief time in the UK, given he is now headed to Central Asian powerhouse team Bunyodkor, in Tashkent. (If he thought working for a Siberian oligarch was rough, how will he fare under the purported influence of President Karimov’s daughter?)

But there’s another reason the Obelix doppelganger may live to regret the move: things may be hotting up in the Ferghana Valley. True, sometimes it seems as if things are always hotting up in Ferghana. The area, awkwardly divided in the Soviet era, straddles Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and is a critical region for each state.

Uzbekistan’s three Ferghana provinces, comprising only 4 per cent of its territory, nevertheless contain the following: 25 per cent of its population; half of its ten largest cities; 25 per cent of its agricultural output; and the source of its largest oil reserves and most of its water.

Kyrgyzstan’s two Ferghana provinces hold 51 per cent of its population and 40 per cent of its territory. Tajikistan would barely exist as a state without its Ferghana province of Sughd, which produces two-thirds of its GDP.

Fertile, densely populated, ethnically diverse and religiously conservative, the Ferghana region has seen its share of political violence in the past twenty years. Some of it has been interethnic: in 1990 hundreds of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were killed in riots in Osh. Some of it has taken the form of transnational terrorism: the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) began mobilising supporters there in the early 1990s (the fearsome military commander of the IMU, Juma Namangani, took his nom de guerre from the Ferghana city of Namangan).

There has also been domestic political violence, as when Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of protesters in Andijan in 2005.

In short, the words ‘Ferghana Valley’ and ‘powder keg’ are often uttered in the same breath. And yet despite a sort of consistent simmer, things have never really kicked off in the region on a large scale. New reports of tension in the area should always be approached cautiously. Nevertheless, recent events are causing some concern and are worth highlighting.

On 26 May a suicide bomb and armed attack were carried out in Andijan and Khanabad (a small Uzbek town on the Kyrgyz border). Official blame was laid upon IMU militants crossing over from Kyrgyzstan; while the IMU were widely acknowledged to have been wiped out alongside their Taliban allies in Afghanistan in 2001, some claim the group has reformed in recent years. (Central Asian regimes are particularly fond of advancing this claim, as the IMU were a potent yet highly unpopular adversary during their strongest period.)

The group that claimed responsibility, however, was the Islamic Jihad Union, a purported offshoot of the IMU. But this may not actually be true either: the attacks could have been the work of criminal outfits or state security services. In Central Asia, attribution is a bit of a parlour game.

Following the attack, the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border was temporarily closed and a handful of minor incidents occurred (allowing one lucky headline writer to come up with this gem: ‘Uzbek, Kyrgyz Border Guards Capture Each Other’ ).   More worrying at the moment, however, are reports that Uzbek authorities are digging trenches – and thus delimiting a border – in areas disputed by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan since 1991.

Local violence is one thing; unilateral border declarations may escalate tensions to the national level. The usual hopes that things will calm down are slightly attenuated by the presence of political uncertainty in both capitals and severe economic crisis in the region – two conditions that can exacerbate both local radicalisation and interstate relations.

So, something to keep an eye on. Scolari’s future career, on the other hand, is probably best left unexamined.