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Kazakhstan: Analysis From Washington -- When Borders Aren't Defined

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 8 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's announcement this week that it does not expect border agreements with its neighbors until at least 2007 helps explain the current tensions in Central Asia as well as ongoing problems most post-Soviet states continue to face.

Beigali Turarbekov, the head of Kazakhstan's border demarcation commission, told an Almaty press conference on Wednesday that his group had made little progress so far in reaching agreement with five neighboring countries. As a result, he said, "the approximate date" for having clearly defined national borders is "somewhere around 2007 or 2008."

Kazakhstan has more than 12,500 kilometers of common borders with neighboring states: 1,700 kilometers with China, 1,050 kilometers with Kyrgyzstan, 400 kilometers with Turkmenistan, 2,150 kilometers with Uzbekistan, and 7,200 kilometers with the Russian Federation. It also has 1,500 kilometers of coastline along the Caspian Sea.

So far, Turarbekov said, Kazakhstan has been conducting border talks with China "for nearly ten years" but has not reached a final resolution there. Talks with Turkmenistan have only just begun. Negotiations with Uzbekistan have been sporadic and difficult.

And the Kazakh official noted that his country's negotiators have achieved agreement with the Russian Federation on the demarcation of only 700 kilometers of their common border -- a figure that is less than 10 percent of the total Kazakhstan-Russian border.

Kazakhstan is typical of the post-Soviet states. Even though they achieved independence almost nine years ago, most lack border demarcation accords with their neighbors or even are involved in serious and sometimes violent territorial disputes.

On the one hand, this situation is a holdover from Soviet times. Between 1917 and 1991, the Soviet government changed borders among the union republics which have now become independent countries more than 100 times, sometimes to create tensions and sometimes to resolve economic problems. And Soviet citizens often paid little attention to administrative borders which they could cross typically without having to show any documents.

But on the other hand, this undefined situation, one that some countries have exploited while others have tried to resolve, has had three important sets of consequences for the post-Soviet states, some of which have been very much on public view in Central Asia during the last few weeks and others of which are likely to become increasingly important in the years ahead.

First, the absence of clearly-defined and mutually-agreed-to borders has encouraged some to ignore these frontiers in the pursuit of their interests. Criminal groups have exploited this indefiniteness and the lack of clear authority it entails, as have insurgent groups and states which have sought to put pressure on their neighbors.

During the last several weeks, in fact, various insurgent groups have crisscrossed the borders of the Central Asian countries, challenging not only the current regimes in these states but even the existing state system in that region. Not surprisingly, officials in many of these countries have urged that border security now be strengthened, a call that has been taken up by some who earlier opposed such efforts.

Second, the lack of borders that both sides agree to has had the effect of exacerbating interethnic tensions rather than reducing them.

Uzbekistan, for example, has been locked in conflicts with both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan's Turarbekov noted at his press conference that one of the reasons for trouble is that "there's a village which is in Uzbek territory, but its inhabitants are Kazakh citizens."

Under certain conditions, of course, such interconnectedness might have the effect of ameliorating ethnic tensions. But in the post-Soviet environment, it appears in most cases to be having just the opposite result, with groups along these disputed frontiers more inclined to blame other groups than to find a common language with them.

And third, the absence of such well-established borders may, precisely because it heightens such tensions, make it more difficult for the governments of these countries to reach agreement even on defending their collective interests.

Events in Central Asia during the last week were especially instructive in this regard. All of the governments talked about cooperating in combating insurgencies, but each focused on the defense of its own borders, thus reducing its commitment to any common effort.

To the extent that trend continues, those who have opposed the creation of genuine and legally agreed to borders among the former Soviet republics out of a belief that this would promote continued good relations among them are likely to find their expectations disappointed.