'It Changes Lives': Families Welcome Reopening Of Kyrgyz, Uzbek Border Posts

Chinikhon Eralieva is packing her bags to visit her two daughters and six grandchildren in neighboring Uzbekistan. The 79-year-old retiree has lived all her life in the village of Sary Syia in southern Kyrgyzstan. But like many ethnic Uzbeks in the area, Eralieva has relatives on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

Those Central Asian neighbors are poised any day to reopen all their shared overland checkpoints and simplify border-crossing procedures, eliminating paperwork that for years has included official invites or personal letters of invitation that locals refer to as "telegrams."

Eralieva will enter Uzbekistan through Dostyk, which became the first border crossing to reopen following an agreement signed by the Uzbek and Kyrgyz presidents earlier this month in Bishkek.

A handful of other checkpoints are expected to reopen any day along their 1,300-kilometer border -- which is still disputed in sections -- although no official date has been announced.

Uzbekistan tightened controls on its Kyrgyz border after pro-democracy unrest ousted Kyrgyzstan's president in 2005, then closed down 12 of its 15 crossing points there after more Kyrgyz political unrest in 2010. The remaining checkpoints operated on a limited basis with tougher requirements for citizens wishing to cross.

The closures came as a blow to hundreds of thousands of people with relatives on both sides of the border in this ethnically mixed swath of post-Soviet Central Asia, where family ties are strong and multiple generations frequently live under one roof.

Ethnic Uzbeks make up about 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 6 million or so citizens, and almost all of them have close relatives across the border. Uzbekistan is also home to tens of thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz with family members in Kyrgyzstan.

“I’ve seen my daughters just twice since 2010,” Eralieva says. “We've missed many important events in each other’s lives. Our relationship has been reduced to speaking by phone.”

While Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan maintained visa-free travel for each other’s citizens, people wishing to cross overland checkpoints have been required to present official invitations for business trips or so-called telegrams -- or private invitation letters -- for personal visits.

"You can only send a telegram if you're hosting a wedding or someone has died in the family," says Eralieva's elder daughter, Nazima, who asks us not to publish her surname. "Obviously, we don’t have weddings every year."

Speaking to RFE/RL by phone from her home in Uzbekistan’s eastern Shahrikhon district, the 50-year-old adds: “To send a telegram, first you need to get a letter from the neighborhood committee and then you need approval from police to confirm that you really have a wedding or a funeral.”

Eralieva’s daughters married in the 1980s, when there were no border restrictions between the two Soviet republics.

Much of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier remained undemarcated for years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, leading to disagreements, military standoffs near the border, and even deadly violence.

In August 2016, Uzbekistan deployed troops to a disputed area -- a small mountaintop known as Ungar-Teppa in Uzbek and Unkur-Too in Kyrgyz. That standoff ended when Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev -- who took over after the death last year of strongman President Islam Karimov -- withdrew those soldiers.

There are indications that ties between Bishkek and Tashkent have improved since Mirziyoev vowed that regional relations are a priority for his government.

Border talks followed, and officials say they have since agreed on the demarcation of some 85 percent of the twisting, often mountainous border. Negotiations are under way for the remaining sections.

Eralieva says she doesn’t understand politics but, “like everybody else” in her neighborhood, she closely followed news about the reopening of the border posts.

This is a decision that affects every family and changes lives, she says.

Thousands of people turned up at the official reopening ceremony at Dostyk on September 6. Known as Dustlik in Uzbek, the checkpoint lies between the southern Kyrgyz province of Osh and the eastern Uzbek province of Andijon.

“From now on, your passport is all you’ll need to cross the border,” Andijon Governor Shuhratbek Abdurahmonov told the gathering. “No telegrams or other documents are required.”

Badridil Kamolova traveled from the provincial capital, Osh, to see the ceremony.

“I haven’t seen my relatives for six years,” she says. “All my relatives live on the other side of the border, in Andijon, where I grew up. I live alone in Osh.”

She married an Osh resident decades ago. Her husband has since died and her daughters married Andijon residents.

In the Uzbek city of Kokand, Kyrgyz-born Nargyza Kudaikulova says she celebrated news of the border opening with a traditional meal of plov.

She watches TV news bulletins every evening “not to miss any announcement on border reopening," she adds.

Officials said on September 13 that thousands of people and hundreds of vehicles have been crossing the Dostyk border crossing daily since its reopening.

Around 2,500 people from each side crossed the border on September 12 alone, along with some 300 vehicles, according to Yusuf Qurbonov, the Bishkek-based coordinator for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).