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Central Asia: Border Issues An 80-Year-Old Headache For Region

  • Zamira Eshanova

The demarcation of state borders remains a sore subject in Central Asia. Since gaining independence over a decade ago, the region's five former Soviet republics have failed to strike an agreement on the issue, laying the way for growing hostilities. Nowhere are tensions higher than in the Ferghana Valley, where border lines delineated by the Bolsheviks in 1924 slice indiscriminately through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. RFE/RL reports on how ongoing border negotiations have affected the lives of the Ferghana Valley's more than 10 million residents.

Prague, 18 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At the official level, Central Asia's negotiations on state borders appear to deadlocked. But reports on fresh border clashes and casualty counts make the news nearly every week.

The governments of Central Asia have been conducting talks on border demarcation for nearly 12 years. But to date, only Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have managed to strike a compromise -- in an agreement last month finalizing the demarcation of their 2,440-kilometer common border. None of the other border negotiations in the region appear even close to being resolved.

Some border concerns are new. Uzbekistan was the first to close its borders and introduce a visa regime following 1999 explosions in its capital city and attempted incursions in 1999 and 2000 by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. But part of the problem is rooted firmly in the past. Central Asia's borders are delineated according to a 1924 plan by Josef Stalin. The result -- according to RFE/RL regional experts attending a roundtable discussion on the border issue this week -- is a time bomb that could be triggered at any moment should regional tempers flare up.

Andres Ilves, the head of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, says that by failing to peacefully resolve the region's border issues, Central Asian leaders are acting out a scenario drafted by the Bolsheviks almost 80 years ago, when Soviet planners adopted a divide-and-conquer scheme to destabilize the area: "Basically, it's just Stalin's last laugh. I mean, the situation that we see today is exactly what was intended. There is no other reason to have created these borders. Obviously, there are other borders that don't make any sense at all. Look at frontiers in Africa, for example, and other places where things were left -- for the sake of maintaining the peace you leave something in place, and sometimes it doesn't make any sense."

The issue is particularly divisive when it comes to the Ferghana Valley, where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have common borders. Amin Tarzi, an RFE/RL regional analyst on Afghanistan, says it is of vital importance to keep border disputes from boiling over in the valley: "The total population [in the Ferghana Valley] is about 10.5 million people. That is one-fifth of the entire population of Central Asia. Half of Kyrgyzstan's population, 27 percent of Uzbekistan's population, and one-third of Tajikistan's population is there. And another important thing is that the average growth rate of the population in the Ferghana Valley is 2 percent annually. When you put all of this together -- forgetting about everything else, just for demographics -- this is a time bomb."

Bessy Brown is a former representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Turkmenistan and an independent expert on Central Asia. Speaking at the RFE/RL roundtable, she said border negotiations would not even matter to most people today were it not for the issue of visas and limited freedom of movement: "It is not a problem between ethnicities. They have been living together for centuries. It is a state problem that has been artificially created. It is very different from the situation in Uzbekistan, say, where it is generated -- justified or not, that's another question -- by fear that the Tajiks are going to let the [IMU] come in and blow up Tashkent, or that the Kyrgyzs can't stop these people from trying to come in and blow up Tashkent. This is an entirely different kind of matter."

Svetlana Gaparova works in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, as an expert with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, she says that historically, the people of the region have no concept of state borders. As a result, efforts by regional governments to establish and monitor state borders with checkpoints and customs posts has caused an uproar among many residents.

She says ordinary people in the Ferghana Valley and elsewhere in Central Asia cannot comprehend why schools, hospitals, and other institutions traditionally shared by the regions residents are now off-limits to them or to others: "It has worked out that [these border areas] were figuratively dismembered. I saw how the state border would pass through somebody's garden or through a tiny brook. As a result, one brother may live on one side of the border while another brother lives on the other side, and they are citizens of two different states. Their children can't go to visit each other or go to the same school, because now they are residents of Uzbekistan [or Kyrgyzstan]."

Setting up state borders and customs posts is not only a complicated emotional issue -- it is also expensive. For many border-region residents, the prospect of paying for a cross-border visa is daunting. In general, the restriction of movement is making poor economic conditions even worse.

Gaparova describes one example of this: "Now cotton picking has begun and it is harvest time in agriculture. People [in Uzbekistan] want to take their harvest into Kyrgyzstan because the Uzbek sum is much lower than Kyrgyz som, and it's not profitable to sell their products in the territory of Uzbekistan. The artificial closure of the borders caused a sharp rise in the price of agricultural products in southern Kyrgyzstan. Before, Uzbek residents from the border areas brought their products to [Kyrgyzstan]. Now there are barriers on the trade and they have to pay high customs fees."

Discussing how best to solve the ongoing border issue, Central Asia analyst Brown said in order for any resolution of the conflict to be long-lasting, it would have to be based at least in part on popular support -- something the governments of the region have so far failed to consider: "You have to take the will of the people into consideration, as the Kyrgyz experience [with repeated antigovernment demonstrations] this year has shown. The parliament may agree, the government may make agreements with China, [but] the population says, 'Wait a minute, this is our land and that is part of our country.' This, of course, is a great achievement in itself, because it shows how the popular mind accepts that 'This is our country.'"

UN expert Gaparova says the best way to gain public support is to involve representatives from border-area communities in the process of negotiations. She cites as one example the new "Initiative for Peace" project, launched by the International Charity Corps to help resolve border-related tensions among Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik residents of the Ferghana Valley: "The [founders of Initiative for Peace] decided to try, on the level of local communities, to bring ordinary people living on different sides of the border together, to help them to find a common ground and then start setting channels of rapprochement. I think if the governments would use this method of people's diplomacy -- if they listen to local communities and unofficial leaders, if they try to involve village leaders into the official negotiations -- then the situation might change for the better."

Andres Ilves mentioned that the U.S. and Mexican governments solved mutual border problems by establishing frontier zones with their own distinct set of rules. He says this experience might work in the Ferghana Valley, if the governments of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan declare the region as a frontier zone, granting citizens of three countries free movement within it.