Uzbekistan Shows That Business Development is the Way Forward for the Ferghana Valley
Clashes in the Ferghana Valley are not new occurrences. Disputes arising from the division of resources and ethnic strife have plagued the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union and have resulted in over 200 deaths and over 100,000 refugees. The fertile valley is split between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, yet the area’s convoluted and serpentine borders often do not match its inhabitants’ ethnic composition. As a result, large numbers of Tajiks live in Uzbekistan, Uzbeks live in Kyrgyzstan, and so on. In addition to these minority populations, various enclaves dot the valley making stable governance and infrastructure projects more difficult to implement. These enclaves are completely cut off by their host country and are often considered microcosms of the Ferghana Valley. Enclave communities frequently lose access to their water sources, become hotbeds for ethnic tension, and experience significant demographic shifts when people migrate out in search of employment.
In June 2010, hundreds of thousands of ethnic-Uzbeks attempted to flee Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan following the ousting of Kyrgyz President Bakiyev and the ensuing pogroms carried out against them. In June 2013, disagreements over the installation of power lines led to a scuffle resulting in five residents shot by Kyrgyz border guards and 30 Kyrgyz citizens taken hostage. Most recently, clashes erupted in May 2020 between Kyrgyz and Uzbek villagers in Uzbekistan’s Sokh enclave, which is completely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. The valley is also a potential hotbed for radical Islamist movements, raising alarm for the United States and its allies. To curb radicalization and promote stability in the Ferghana Valley, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should follow Uzbekistan’s lead in supporting agricultural business in the region and promoting investment opportunities that benefit the valley’s residents.
The Ferghana Valley is densely populated and contains some of Central Asia’s best arable land. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s five countries most dependent on its agricultural sector for employment. More than 27 percent of Uzbekistan’s workforce is employed in agriculture, and a large percentage of farmers rely on the Ferghana Valley’s fertile terrain. Uzbekistan is partnering with the World Bank to create 20,000 jobs for Ferghana Valley residents by supporting rural entrepreneurs. Officials hope that the initiative will catalyze an increase in business activity, higher employment rates for women and vulnerable populations, and access to financial support. Similarly, Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov announced that Tashkent would implement 73 projects worth $28 million to generate 4,500 jobs in its Sokh enclave following the May clashes. Higher rates of employment spurred by Uzbek government investments will lead to economic stability and likely a decrease in tensions across the valley.
The establishment of the region’s tourism sector and the development of agricultural value-chains would benefit enclaves in the Ferghana Valley that are too small to sustain substantial industries. Stakeholders have already realized the potential of capitalizing on the region’s historic roots to the Silk Road by expanding the valley’s tourism industry and are supporting government efforts to transform the valley into a desirable tourist destination.
Enhanced business opportunities for residents of the Ferghana Valley will also aid in deradicalization efforts. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is hoping that economic opportunity will deter people from joining the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other radical Islamist organizations. President Mirziyoyev is advocating for free market reforms that would make Uzbekistan more palatable to foreign direct investment from Western partners. The investment from Western partners would likely increase employment opportunities and improve living conditions for Ferghana Valley residents. For example, India has a historical link to the Ferghana Valley that it is using as leverage to increase engagement in the region. The Indian government has floated the possibility of using its soft power to develop cultural tourism in the valley, which would be a positive development for the region. The cooperation has also extended beyond the tourism sector. In February 2018, India and Uzbekistan inked an agreement to produce pharmaceutical products and medical equipment in Uzbekistan’s Andijan region. Consequently, the two countries established the Uzbek-Indian Free Pharmaceutical Zone in Andijan in October 2018. In this style, the three Ferghana Valley countries should continue to seek investment from foreign countries to develop the valley’s infrastructure to deter the growth of radical Islamic movements.
Initiatives to enhance business opportunities and development in the region will not be successful without the support of all three Ferghana Valley countries. For example, transit routes linking Osh and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan wind through treacherous terrain and seriously inhibit commerce. Enhancing road networks to connect Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana cities Osh and Jalal-Abad with Uzbekistan would greatly improve trade efficiency. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan need to collectively work together to uplift their communities in the Ferghana Valley.
Uzbekistan has already implemented several initiatives to ensure economic stability for its Ferghana Valley communities. Tashkent has committed to allocating state funds to support its agricultural workforce, vulnerable populations, and struggling individuals living in various enclaves. In addition, it is attracting foreign investors to support infrastructure projects and further develop its tourism and agricultural sectors in the region to inhibit the spread of radical Islamic movements across the valley and provide expanded employment opportunities for valley residents. While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan do not have as much capital to roll out new initiatives in the same way that Uzbekistan has done, they can both look to attract foreign investments and assistance from development banks and international funds to funnel money into their tourism and agricultural sectors. As the progress Uzbekistan has been making shows, the Ferghana’s simmering volatility is not a case of path dependence. By investing in economic development Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan can free the valley from its turbulent past.