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Central Asia: Necessity Of Clearly-Defined Borders Challenged

  • Roland Eggleston

Garmisch, Germany; 11 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The five states of Central Asia are now independent. For many political experts, the question today is whether these countries, bound together by centuries of history and tradition, need security agreements and clearly defined borders.

The security issue was part of a vigorous debate on regional cooperation this week at a seminar in the German Alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The meeting, organized by the U.S.-supported European Center for Security Studies, brought together top Western and indigenous experts on Central Asia.

Many of the Westerners argued that regional security agreements and military confidence-building measures would enhance stability and help develop regional cooperation. Their arguments were based largely on the number of common security concerns facing the region --among them, drug smuggling, organized crime, terrorism and the threat of conflict spilling over from Afghanistan. Some of the ideas they presented were supported by the audience of Central Asian diplomats and security experts, but others were not.

An expert from Kyrgyzstan responded to one Western analyst: "You suggest formal military confidence-building agreements, such as not holding military exercises close to the border and a formal exchange of information every year about the size of our forces and the types of equipment we possess. But why? Our peoples have always lived in trust and confidence. We don't have territorial claims on each other. There has always been transparency among our peoples."

Other Central Asians took issue with the idea of clearly defined borders for the five states, all created by the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. One said: "For centuries, many of our peoples were nomads. There were never clearly defined borders. Establishing them now could lead to conflicts with political leaders calling on the people to 'defend our borders.'"

Similarly, another Central Asian expert said that area countries should not get involved in the issue of "inviolability of borders." Instead, he said, the question should be one of territorial integrity, with the border issue left vague.

A U.S. expert, Roger Kangas from the Foreign Service Institute at Georgetown University, argued that there is already some military cooperation in Central Asia, although not all states participate in every venture. One example Kangas cited is the Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion, established in December 1995, which is made up of units from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The 530-man unit has been welcomed as an important sign of the ability of these countries to cooperate in addressing regional security concerns.

Another example was this Summer's move by Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to form what they called a "common front" against increased Taliban activity across the border in Afghanistan.

But Vitaly Naumkin, who is President of Russia's Center for Strategic Research and International Studies, warned that the significance of these examples should not be exaggerated. He said the initiative by Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to counter any possible incursions from Afghanistan had not evoked much sympathy from either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, while neutral Turkmenistan took what was described as a "benevolent, if not amicable attitude toward the Taliban."

Both Naumkin and Kangas also argued that, although relations among the Central Asian states appeared to be generally good now, there were a number of issues which might lead to problems in the future.

They noted that accusations are sometimes heard in Tajikistan that neighboring Uzbekistan has turned a blind eye to the activities of the Tajik rebel army colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdyev. Some Tajiks allege that the colonel trained some of his troops in the Zomin area of Uzbekistan. On the other side, some Uzbeks believe that the rights of the Uzbek minority in Tajikistan --about 24 per cent of the total population-- are not fully respected.

But Naumkin stressed: "Despite these problems, there are no serious reasons for any inter-ethnic conflict between Uzbeks and Tajiks. Both groups lived together peacefully for many centuries."

Kangas suggested that energy questions could be a source of inter-state problems in the years to come. Kyrgyzstan, for instance, must import oil and gas from its neighbors. But it has abundant water resources and, if they are developed, the country could export hydroelectric energy. According to Kangas, "the ability to share water resources and regulate usage is going to be a major security concern of the next century."

Energy is also important to Kazakhstan, which has impressive oil resources. But transporting Kazakh oil to international markets and protecting the pipelines will require good relations with its neighbors.

Some of the analysts at the seminar also hinted indirectly at possible competition sometime in the future between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Each aspires to be the leading state in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is much bigger geographically, but Uzbekistan can boast a larger population and is in the region's center.

All participating analysts stressed their belief that regional cooperation is the only way to handle common problems facing them all. One such problem is the production of, and trafficking in, drugs. The highway from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Khorog in Tajikistan is notorious for transporting both drugs and weapons. Proliferation of the regional drugs and weapons trade was also described as a growing problem in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

For Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the continuing war in Afghanistan poses problems. Some fear an expansion of the conflict in the future. Others point out that there is already a flood of refugees and a growing drug trafficking from Afghanistan.

Summing up his arguments for cooperation in military and other matters, Kangas argued that most of the problems facing Central Asia today are too big for any one country to handle. He said:

"Whether one is talking about pipeline routes from Kazakhstan, water cooperation agreements or military security, multilateral agreements are usually necessary. Likewise, to successfully address the rising drug trade, the states of the region must work together.

He added that "This also applies to the environment. To take one example, the drying out of the Aral Sea is simply too big for a single state to address. Only by coordinating policies can an acceptable solution be found."