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Located at the heart of Central Asia, Fergana Valley is enclosed by the Tian Shan Mountains to the north and the Gissar-Alai range to the south. The approximately 22,000 square kilometres of flat and fertile plains of the valley stands in stark contrast to the surrounding regions in Central Asia, marked by deserts, treeless steppes, and mountainous terrain.

(Souce: Dalhousie University)

Owing to the Syr Darya River and its various tributaries, the valley is the agricultural heartland of Central Asia and is, hence, a major source of food (main crops include wheat, rice, vegetables, and fruit as well as cotton) for the region. This agricultural productivity also makes the valley most densely populated part of Central Asia. The Fergana Valley is also believed to be rich in a number of natural resources, including gold, oil, copper and other raw materials. It lies, in other words, at the crux of Central Asia.

The Fergana Valley's population consists mainly of Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks and is split among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, each of the three countries in the Fergana Valley contains significant minorities of the other two ethnic groups. Further adding to the complexity are several ethnic exclaves in the Fergana Valley in each of the three countries.

There are historical reasons for this complexity of the borders and ethnic distribution in the valley. The valley historically mostly existed under a unified political entity. In ancient times, it was a part of Transoxiana, a province of the Persian Empire. It was a significant part of the Silk Road trade from China to the Middle East and Europe. During the 13th century, it was conquered by the Mongols and was included into the Chagatai Khanate. Even as political boundaries took different shape under Turkic groups and Islam spread into the region, the valley was always ruled as one administrative unit. In the 18th century, Kokand Khanate emerged, which included eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan, and most of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The ingress of Imperial Tsarist Russia into Central Asia in the 19th century once again transformed political control in the region. But the Fergana Valley remained a cohesive unit, becoming the Fergana province of Russian Turkestan out of the former Kokand Khanate in 1876.

The October Revolution (also called the Bolshevik Revolution) in 1917 that led to the creation of the Soviet Union had a consequential impact on Central Asia generally and in the Fergana Valley specifically. Deliberately overlooking identities largely based on clans, region or religion (Islam), the Soviets, clubbed the peoples of Central Asia into distinct nationalities. The ethnolinguistic labels of Uzbek, Kyrgyz or Tajik were imposed on people, leading to confounded and overlapping identities that are still a major factor.

Stalin carved up the borders and divided the Fergana Valley in such a way that no single political entity in Central Asia could emerge with the potential to threaten or challenge the Russian mainland. These artificial divisions, however, corresponded neither to the natural geography of the Fergana Valley nor to the newly created national identities. Interestingly, even after the creation of complex borders, the entire region was still under one single entity’s control i.e. the Soviets, making the borders largely irrelevant.

Things took a dramatic turn after the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading to a wave of nationalism throughout the former Soviet republics, including Central Asia. The newly formed republics espoused strong sentiments of nationalism that was particularly severe in the ethnically mixed Fergana Valley, where people’s identity overnight was joined with their nations and newly born republics.

The Soviet agricultural model was based on large collective farms. Although it was pursued repressively during Stalin’s rule (people were forced to give up their land and livestock) and led to many people dying due to starvation or migrating to other regions. This, however, eliminated any competition for land and resources between people in the region. Even in case of any unforeseen unrest when the locals rose up in revolt against such policies, the Soviets maintained order with robust security apparatus in place. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the economic changes and political reforms brought many of these tensions to the fore. The changes to the former Soviet system created new competition over land and resource.

The breakdown of the Soviet Union left the newly independent Central Asian Republics economically vulnerable as they were earlier primarily dependent on and integrated with the Russian economy. The poorly demarcated borders in the Fergana Valley and the ill-trained local security forces to handle explosive situations further exacerbated the problems and created fostering tensions in relations among Central Asian states.

In June 2010, large-scale ethnic violence erupted in the region between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, starting in the city of Osh but also spreading to nearby Jalal-Abad, leading to 2,000 people being killed and more than 100,000 people displaced. There have been since regular skirmishes along the borders continuing to serve as a basis for instability and occasional violence.

Another factor destabilizing the Fergana Valley has been religious radicalism and extremism. As opposed to other parts of Central Asia that historically had nomadic lifestyles, the settled population in the Fergana region has been one of the most devout and conservative. The region has given birth to radical Islamist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which emerged out of the Namangan district of Uzbekistan in opposition to Uzbek President Islam Karimov's highly secular rule and conducted several attacks in the valley. Proximity to Afghanistan, that shares a porous border with Tajikistan, makes the situation even more precarious. It not only serves as a drug-trafficking route and has a significant organized crime presence but also facilitates traffic of radical elements. The region has also seen one of the highest numbers of fighters joining the ISIS.

The U.S. drawdown in 2014 from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s resurgence there has raised concerns that militancy could become a growing menace in the future. There are also reports of growing religiosity and radicalization among the population (especially youths) in areas like southern Kyrgyzstan (Osh and Jalalabad belt which lies in the Fergana valley) and in Tajikistan.

The Central Asian countries’ way of dealing with extremism is also one of the main drivers of radicalization. Tightly controlled religious practices by the state, poor socio-economic conditions and suppressing political opposition in the name of extremism have long been significant factors driving radicalization and extremism in Central Asia. By building a close relationship with China and participating in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Central Asian states are hoping for an economic revival that can help to solve the issue of giving more socio-economic opportunities for their restive domestic populations. But Beijing’s own tactics against religious extremism and separatism could prove counterproductive to the Sino-Central Asian relationship. The treatment meted out to Uighurs (Turkic-origin Muslims) in Xinjiang by the Chinese government is a case in point that could flare up and exacerbate ethnoreligious sentiments in Central Asia.

Further adding to these issues is the demographic growth expected in Central Asia in general and the Fergana Valley in particular in the next few decades. According to U.N. estimates, the population is expected to rise by 35-40 per cent by 2050. This will place enormous pressure on the already scarce resources in the region, particularly water, and heighten the competition for jobs in an already underdeveloped region. Therefore, the already tense security environment can be expected to see more demographic and economic pressures in the coming years.

The three countries of the region have historically adopted different approaches in dealing with the issues pertaining to the valley.

Tajikistan is the poorest and the most ill-equipped in the region has mostly dealt with its part of the valley (inhabited by ethnic Uzbeks) by largely staying indifferent. The geography is such too that Tajikistan’s part of the Fergana valley is mostly cut-off from the rest of the country by mountain ranges. Not surprisingly, therefore, the government exercises very little control outside the capital region of Dushanbe.

Kyrgyzstan, on its part, has experienced a north-south divide between its capital region of Bishkek in the north and the Osh, Jalalabad region lying in the Fergana valley in the south. The southern region has resented control from the north as cities like Osh have a significant ethnic Uzbek population. This has led to unrest resulting in not just violent border clashes but also political instability. In 2005 Tulip Revolution, the President was forced to resign and flee the country.

Uzbekistan is the largest stakeholder in the valley both in terms of territory and population size there. Under Islam Karimov’s Presidency (passed away in 2016), Uzbekistan had a hardline policy towards its valley neighbours and even occasionally crossed into their territories to purportedly protect ethnic Uzbeks or hunt down extremists. His rule saw no significant movement in resolving the disputed borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the Fergana Valley.

Things have started to change since Uzbekistan’s new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over in 2016. He is emphasizing on normalizing regional ties and promoting economic growth. Under his watch, the government is working to raise living standards in the Fergana Valley and to bring back citizens turned insurgents home to lead a normal and peaceful life. In 2018, Uzbekistan signed an unprecedented Strategic Partnership agreement with its once-troubled neighbour, Tajikistan and has opened more than 10 new border crossings with it. Under a 2002 agreement, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan actually have 16 crossings along their shared border, but almost all had largely been inoperative as a result of a history of mutual suspicion and hostility. On similar lines, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are negotiating border demarcation peacefully. There have also been talks on construction of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway line that can further increase connectivity and give a boost to economic ties, thereby, reducing tensions further.

All this has implications not only for Fergana countries of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan but also for external players with interests in the region. Russia not only has a historical influence but also military presence and would be concerned about the social stability in these countries. Another challenge that Russia contemplates is the rise of extremism and conservative practices in the valley that can disturb its own once volatile Caucasus republics. Russia has about 20 million Muslims of its own and hosts scores of migrant labour from Central Asia. Neighbouring giant China has made significant economic inroads under BRI into Central Asia over the past few years and these are also at risk of instability in the region grows. China’s primary concern is to keep in check its restive Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang (historically called East Turkestan) and curb activities of violent militant groups like ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement). The United States, stuck in the Afghanistan quagmire, will maintain a presence in the region, to cooperate in counter-narcotics and counterterrorism with Central Asian governments. It wants a foothold in the region also for reasons of great-power rivalry between itself and the emerging Russia-China axis.

For India, with which Central Asia shares historical civilization links (Babur, seen as the founder of the Mughal Empire in India, is believed to have come to India from the Fergana valley in Uzbekistan), ensuring negation of extremist ideology and stability is of utmost importance as its presence and outreach extends into the region. India has set up its first overseas military base Farkhor in Tajikistan and also assisted in building Ayni hospital there. India's role in fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda network as well as its strategic rivalry with both China and Pakistan has made its ties with Tajikistan important to its strategic and security policies. India also sees the bases providing access to the oil and energy resources of Central Asia. India has also upgraded its ties, especially in the defence sector, with both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The influence of Pakistani and Saudi funding fueling Wahabbism (a puritanical form of Islam) in the Fergana Valley is also of great concern to India as groups in the region are believed to have transnational links and can potentially create trouble for India in Afghanistan and in Kashmir.

Whether the region achieves further stability in the future depends a lot on the regional governments. Lingering issues should be resolved peacefully and amicably with an intra-regional approach, taking into account the sensitivities of the people. External powers should encourage the growth of economic opportunities, more political freedom at the grassroots and nudge the regional governments to work together in overcoming differences.


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Image Credit: Abercrombiekent.

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Written By Amandeep Hanspal

Software engineer turned geopolitical enthusiast.

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