The year 2013 will probably long be remembered in Central Asia as the last year foreign forces in Afghanistan were at something resembling full strength and provided a reliable defense against Afghan problems spilling northward across the border.
Officials in all the Central Asian states have been voicing concern about what happens as the "drawdown" in Afghanistan progresses. Some of these officials have even ventured to mention that regional unity is the best defense Central Asia has against militants in the south. But there has not been much sign of such unity taking shape and the establishment of border posts in Central Asia last year is a reflection of a process of division, rather than union.
There were at least 20 border posts set up in Central Asia in 2013, though there may have been some that were not reported. Four were put up along the border with Afghanistan -- three in Turkmenistan and one in Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan region. Tajikistan is planning to add four more this year.
The other posts are guarding Central Asian states against other Central Asian states.
The Ferghana Valley, shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, would be the obvious place to start taking a look at this process but that's not where I'm going to start.
Kazakhstan established at least six border posts (Kastek, Kaskelen, Zhambyl, Sortobe, Otegen, and Kasyk) on its frontier with Kyrgyzstan in 2013. It might not sound like so many along a border more than 1,000 kilometers long but it marks a complete reversal of the process during the mid-1990s, when the countries agreed to dismantle all the posts along their common border.
And before traveling to Philip Shishkin's "Restless Valley" (more on that in a later posting), Turkmenistan opened two new posts on its border with Uzbekistan in 2013.
It would take a dozen articles, at least, to describe the problems along the borders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, how many people have been abused, shot, and killed, and the reasons behind it all.
This posting is only concerned with border posts.
According to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service's sources, six new posts were put in in 2013 and that more, many more, were coming soon. The head of the Ala-Buka detachment of the border guards, Zamir Nadyrbekov, said in June 2013 that five posts were being constructed along the Uzbek border. In October, the spokeswoman for Kyrgyzstan's State Border Service, Gulmira Borubaeva, said Kyrgyzstan was building more than 60 "hidden viewing posts" along the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In November, the acting head of Kyrgyzstan's border guards, Rayimberdi Duishenbiev, said 60 new checkpoints would be established along the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in 2014.
About the same time, Tajikistan's independent news agency Asia-Plus reported that Kyrgyzstan had erected 16.4 kilometers of fences along its (nearly 2,000-kilometer) borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, probably a good deal of it around the Sokh exclave that belongs to Uzbekistan and was the scene of a violent confrontation in January 2013
Uzbekistan also set up two new posts new Kyrgyzstan's Kadamzhai district in September. Kyrgyzstan's government requested their removal and reports say that a few days after the posts were established one (the Yapagi) was taken down.
Tajikistan also put up the Boghdari post along the Kyrgyz border.
At this point it's worth noting Uzbekistan has been setting up border posts since the first days after the Soviet Union collapsed and the independent Central Asian states emerged. So it's not surprising there are so few reports of Uzbek border posts being built recently.
Conversely, Kyrgyzstan allowed Russian border guards to keep watch on its frontiers until the end of the 1990s. As a consequence, Kyrgyzstan is playing catch-up with its Ferghana Valley neighbors.
And just how far Kyrgyzstan is behind its neighbors was summed up in a report from Kyrgyzstan's AKIpress on April 29, 2011. AKIpress interviewed then-border guard chief Zakir Tilenov who lamented, "16 [Kyrgyz] border outposts, comprising 716 servicemen, are guarding the country's borders with Tajikistan. On the part of Tajikistan, 18 border outposts, with a numerical strength of 1,800 servicemen, are guarding the [Tajik] state borders [with Kyrgyzstan]. The ratio of forces in terms of border outposts is 1:2 and in terms of the personnel is 1:2.5. Thirty border outposts, comprising 1,063 servicemen, are guarding Kyrgyzstan's borders with Uzbekistan, whereas Uzbekistan has 7,800-strong force [at] 53 border outposts [along its borders with Kyrgyzstan]. The ratio of forces is 1:7, which is to the advantage of Uzbekistan."
And along the Kazakh border, where once border posts were being taken down, "Kyrgyzstan has 14 border outposts, comprising 452 servicemen, along its borders with Kazakhstan. The number of Kazakh border guards is 1,040."
So Central Asia seems headed in the opposite direction of the Schengen states in Europe.
A last note, and one from my personal history.
When I started working in Central Asia in 1992, there were no border posts. The five countries had just been part of one huge country. I, as a U.S. citizen, could drive or walk unchallenged right across the borders (with the exception of Tajikistan, where there was civil war), and I did often. I was there when the first border posts were going up, in Uzbekistan, along the Kyrgyz and Tajik borders and even then stopping at the border was a brief formality, just long enough to be asked if I had any weapons or narcotics in my baggage.*
By 1993 that was over, border posts were going up, and it was shortly after that I started hearing the derogatory comments about neighboring peoples that are now common in the region.
* Because I was traveling back and forth across Central Asia so much then, I was asked this question dozens of times. Once I tired of hearing it and responded, "If I did have weapons or narcotics in my bag, do you really think I would tell you?"
Don't ever say that to Uzbek border guards. It will certainly delay your journey.
-- Bruce Pannier. Gulaym Ashakeeva contributed to this post.