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TURKMENISTAN-UZBEKISTAN: Cross border movement remains problematic

Karshi, 6 June 2005 (IRIN) - Zainab Shokhojaeva, a resident on the Uzbek side of the border town of Tallimarjan in the southern province of Kashkadarya, peers through the barbed wire across her garden and into Turkmenistan. She gazes over the meadows where her family used to graze their cattle, nostalgically recalling the past when her family were better off.

The small yard of Zainab's house ends at the barbed-wire fence put up by the Turkmen border guards. Beyond the wire can be seen a single soldier from the army of Turkmenistan.

"The Turkmens erected the barbed wire fence," 47-year-old Zainab told IRIN. "Actually, we grazed cattle on this meadow, grew vegetables in the kitchen garden and now we have lost even the water. Moreover, our trees and plants have dried up."

Zainab's case highlights a continuing problem faced by many border residents in post-Soviet Central Asia. Tallimarjan's 10,000 inhabitants, living on the boundary dividing Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, struggle with a variety of issues following border demarcation which has split their town.

The five former Soviet republics of Central Asia have yet to fully demarcate their frontiers 14 years after independence. During the Soviet era, the borders, which were arbitrarily carved out in the 1920s by Josef Stalin, weren't strictly controlled and remained largely unmarked.

When the 1,621 km Turkmen-Uzbek border was finally formalised in 1991, Tallimarjan was divided up. Uzbeks finding themselves on the Turkmen side were only relocated to the Uzbek part of the town a couple of years ago.

Relations between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan soured after the alleged assassination attempt on Turkmen president Saparmurad Niyazov in November 2002. Some senior Turkmen officials blame Uzbekistan for harbouring those reportedly involved.

In November 2004, Uzbek president Islam Karimov and his Turkmen counterpart, met in the ancient Uzbek city of Bukhara to sign a number of agreements. The media in both countries set great store by the meeting of the two presidents, with some analysts predicting a thawing of relations.

Now many Uzbeks claim that all their hopes were dashed and that little has changed since the Bukhara meeting.

"There has not been any positive change after the meeting of the two presidents," Zainab told IRIN. "On the contrary, here we have started fearing Turkmen frontier guards more. When our cattle cross the border, we cannot get them back."

Moreover, local residents told IRIN that it has become even more difficult to visit relatives or friends that live in Turkmenistan following the presidential meeting. According to new regulations, citizens of Uzbekistan registered in frontier areas can go to the border areas of the neighbouring country and stay there for no more than three days.

"Before the meeting of the presidents, we could stay in Turkmenistan for six days for these $6. Nowadays, it has been reduced to three days," Zainab complained.

Meilimurad Muradullaev, an 80-year-old local resident, agreed, saying his life has hardly improved since new regulations were introduced.

"There haven't been any good changes since that. The majority of the jobless youth of the town are still involved in the smuggling of consumer goods and petrol from Turkmenistan. It is illegal but they are forced to do so," Muradullaev told IRIN.

Fuel smuggling from Turkmenistan is the only source of income for many inhabitants of the town. During the meeting of the two presidents, plans were made to establish joint markets in the frontier areas but those initiatives have yet to be realised, observers say.

Meanwhile, local officials were of a different opinion, feeling that many things had improved. Abdurazzak Khudaiberdiev, the mayor of Tallimarjan, asserted that residents of border areas can now more easily cross the frontier in both directions to visit relatives in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan free of charge.

"They can visit only the frontier areas but in order to go further, an official entry visa to Turkmenistan is needed," Khudaiberdiev conceded.

Theme (s): Conflict, Other,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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