Uzbekistan to restore flights to its Sokh exclave

Uzbekistan has approved a development plan for the Ferghana Valley exclave of Sokh, a slice of territory entirely within Kyrgyzstan, that envisions the resumption of flights to the mainland and tax breaks.

The need to adopt measures on restoring links to Sokh reached urgent pitch in late May, when vicious clashes broke out between local residents and villagers in neighboring Kyrgyzstan over access to irrigation water. What had begun as a cross-border, intercommunal dispute, however, soon evolved into anger among Sokh people toward the government in Tashkent, which is perceived as having abandoned the exclave to its fate.

Physical isolation is one of the most pressing problems affecting Sokh. Kyrgyzstan has cited its membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union as justification for limiting movement of people and goods between Sokh and the mainland, since it is believed this traffic could serve to circumvent the bloc’s restriction on trade from non-member nations. The corridor had been briefly thrown open last August, but it was shut again within days at the behest of the EAEU.

Air routes used to operate between Sokh and the Uzbek SSR in Soviet times. Anywhere up to 12 passengers at a time flew from the city of Ferghana to Sokh on rickety Antonov An-2 planes, known popularly as kukuruzniks. Those flights ceased in the early 1990s and the Sokh airfield was given to local farmers, who turned it into plots for growing potatoes, tomatoes and corn.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has demanded that the Ferghana regional governor restore a landing strip for planes and helicopters within a month. The Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry have been ordered to coordinate with the Kyrgyz government on airspace use. The Transportation Ministry has been given one week to draw up a flight schedule and to set affordable prices for local people.

The Sokh development program also envisions exemptions from land and property taxes through to the end of 2020.

Sokh is home to around 85,000 people, the vast majority of whom are ethnic Tajiks.

The isolation is crushing. Sodik Tohirov, the editor of local Tajik-language newspaper Voice of Sokh, said that promises made by the government to restore movement to the mainland following the fighting in May have so far proven hollow.

“Only trucks with foodstuffs come to us. Our fellow countrymen, labor migrants returning from Russia, can only get as far as Ferghana and they are forced to stay there. To get through Kyrgyzstan to Sokh, you need to pay $200 in bribes to Kyrgyz border guards and traffic police,” Tohirov told Eurasianet.

Another result of the blockade has been that Tohirov’s newspaper has ceased publishing. The newspaper, which has been produced uninterruptedly since February 1951, is usually printed in the city of Margilan and then brought to Sokh.

“After the clashes, the newspaper stopped coming out. Before that, it was printed twice a month and had a circulation of 2,000 copies. Now the people Sokh have been left without their newspaper. The only media outlet still operating is Sokh TV,” Tohirov told Eurasianet.