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Central Asia: Regional Border Disputes Have Old Roots

  • Don Hill

Prague, 1 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The newest political entity in Central Asia is the tiny Baghys Republic.

Actually, it is not a republic at all. Its name is a ploy to call the attention of authorities in the Kazakh capital, Astana, 2,000 kilometers distant, to the plight of two border villages.

Other border disputes, whose roots go far back in Russian and Central Asian history, simmer between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, among others.

The fictitious Baghys Republic is one case. For the 55 years that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were constituent republics of the Soviet Union, it hardly mattered that the two shared control of about 5,000 square kilometers. But now, 11 years later, the Kazakh residents of the villages of Baghys and Turkestanets have grown weary of living in disputed territory.

Their declaration in January that they were forming an independent republic finally captured the attention of the Uzbek and Kazakh capitals. But the situation remains muddled. Activists, including Almaty physician Oral Saulebay, established an organization named the Committee for the Protection of Kazakh Lands and agitated for the two villages and their surrounding region to be recognized as Kazakh.

On behalf of the committee, Saulebay was able to announce partial success in a press conference in Almaty this week. He said Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have determined that one of the villages, Baghys, is to be Kazakh. However, he remains dissatisfied.

"Thousands of hectares given to the Uzbeks, together [at first] with Baghys and Turkestanets villages [still], also together with all the infrastructure -- namely the military airport, water reservoirs, tank depots, and other objects -- should be returned to Kazakhstan as soon as possible. In case they are not returned, you know how many NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) are represented here. Our supporters from all over the country will organize a mass demonstration of protest."

Saulebay called on Kazakhstan's top leaders to resolve the problem. Local governors, he said, are not powerful enough to handle the issues. Just today, the deputy governor of the South Kazakhstan Oblast announced that the border dispute is to be resolved by the end of next month. Interfax quotes Nurlan Seytshapparov as reaffirming that the fate of Baghys is already settled and that the status of Turkestanets is to be resolved "soon."

The root cause of boundary unrest in Central Asia goes deep into Russian and Central Asian history. In the late 19th century, Russia adopted a policy of settling peasants from European Russia on the Kazakh steppe, appropriating the grazing grounds and arousing the enmity of Kazakh nomads. In the Russian Revolution of 1917, Kazakhstan's leading parties joined forces with the Russian Reds.

A decade later, however, as part of the Soviet strategy for expanding control over Central Asia, Russia labeled the Kazakh leadership bourgeois nationalists and drove them from power.

In the same period, the Soviet Union created and incorporated five new Soviet socialist republics -- Turkmenistan in 1924, Uzbekistan in 1925, Tajikistan in 1929, and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 1936. The Soviets drew the boundaries arbitrarily, splitting ethnic divisions and ignoring natural geographic ones. The artificial nature of their borders remains an irritant to this day, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even odder than the case of the so-called Baghys Republic is the situation of an enclave of mostly ethnic Tajiks living on a piece of Uzbekistan wholly surrounded by Kyrgyzstan's Batken Oblast. This dispute involved the countries' prime ministers to the exclusion of local authorities, with results as unsettled as those in Baghys.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev and Uzbek Prime Minister Utkir Sultanov negotiated an agreement early last year in which Kyrgyzstan was to cede a 15-kilometer-long corridor joining the Uzbek border to the enclave. The Uzbeks were to deliver in exchange an equal-sized tract from the enclave's other end.

When word of the agreement became public, it caused an uproar in Kyrgyzstan. Batken Governor Mamat Aibalaev complained that he had not been informed of the deal until after it was signed. Subsequently, after visiting the land that the Uzbeks proposed to swap for a corridor through a fertile river valley, Prime Minister Bakiev announced that he had voided the deal.

"They proposed to give us territory in remote mountains. I have promptly said that we cannot accept it because it is not suitable for building roads, for riding. It is suitable only for grazing sheep. That is why this memorandum will not be realized, because as I said from the very start, its conditions should be suitable for both sides."

There has been no word, however, from the Uzbek government that it accepts an abrogation of the agreement.

ITAR-TASS reports today that talks have resumed on the remaining border issues between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The report says the Kyrgyz delegation lists the Uzbek enclave and its corridor as one of the open issues.

(The Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)

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