Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Enclaves in Southern Kyrgyzstan

A striking feature of the map of southern Kyrgyzstan is its complex political geography and, especially, its 'archipelago' of enclaves. There are, in fact, seven of them in all. Some are little more than a former collective farm and its attached arable land. Others have real demographic and geopolitical significance. The largest of these, both in size and population, is Sokh, an autonomous district belonging to neighbouring Uzbekistan. It covers 325 square kilometres and has a 99 per cent Tajik population of 42,300. The only Uzbeks here are civil servants and the military from Tashkent. East of Sokh lies the mountainous enclave of Shahimardan, also Uzbek territory, and 91 per cent Uzbek. To the west, triangular-shaped Vorukh belongs to Tajikistan, with a population 95 per cent Tajik and 5 per cent Kyrgyz. The economies of all three enclaves rely heavily on agriculture and cross-border irrigation systems.

But how did such a bizarre geographic mosaic come into being? The classic answer is: 'Stalin's divide and rule policy'. Although this is partly the case, the story is somewhat more complex and shrouded in mystery. Officially, it was a matter of the distribution of irrigated land according to the needs of the different republics. But in reality, much had to do with the personal politics of the native Soviet leadership of the 1920s.

Jyldyz Akun-babaev, the first Soviet leader of Uzbekistan, was from Margilan in the Uzbek Fergana valley and had blood ties in the present-day enclaves. He was on good terms with his Kyrgyz colleague, Yusup Abdurakhmanov, who came from the Jalal-Abad area. It is believed that the men 'traded' the enclaves (where Akunbabaev had his kinfolk) for Jalal-Abad (where Abdurakhmanov had his roots), a predominantly Uzbek city that is still part of Kyrgyzstan today. As one British observer put it, 'these enclaves show that history is sometimes more a matter of personal interest and negotiations around a bowl of plov in a chaikana, than of any geo-political master plan.'