ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Securing the 12,000-kilometer border of the world's ninth-largest country has never been an easy task.
But in 2012 Kazakhstan's challenges proved especially steep.
In May, 14 border guards serving at a remote outpost on the Kazakh-Chinese border were shot dead and their post burned to the ground. A fellow guard, 19-year-old Vladislav Chelakh, was charged with the slaughter and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.
The incident sparked an immediate housecleaning in the Kazakh border service. Its head, Major General Nurzhan Myrzaliev, stepped down. His replacement, Colonel Turganbek Stambekov, came in with orders to reform the troubled corps.
But on December 25, Stambekov was killed when his military transport plane crashed in the southern city of Shymkent, just north of the Uzbek border. All 27 people on board were killed, including Stambekov's wife and 20 high-ranking border-guard personnel.
Speaking on January 3 at a memorial service in Almaty, Nurtai Abykaev, the head of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), spoke of Stambekov's dedication to protecting Kazakhstan's borders.
"All of us are familiar with Colonel Stambekov's life, all of his personal and professional qualities," Abykaev said. "Many of you served together with him as you watched over the sacred borders of our country. Stambekov defended the state borders for more than 10 years and justifiably rose through the ranks from a deputy border-post chief to the leadership of the border agency."
Kazakh officials say no foul play is suspected in the crash, and Abykaev has urged Kazakhs to avoid making "connections" between Shymkent and the May border massacre.
All the same, the latest tragedy deals a fresh setback to the struggling border service in Kazakhstan, which shares borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in addition to the Caspian Sea.
Besides monitoring cross-border trade, Kazakhstan's border police are also seen as the first defense against trafficking, particularly the lucrative drug trade emanating from Afghanistan.
But Kazakhstan, whose population of 17 million is small relative to its vast size, has struggled to commit adequate manpower to its posts. Tolegen Zhukeev, the former head of the Kazakh Security Council, describes Kazakhstan's borders as a "sieve."
Border guards, who often work alongside customs officials and other law enforcement officials, are seen as vulnerable to corruption and often jockey with rival agencies for a share of the profits.
This is especially true along the Kazakh-Chinese border. China produces an estimated 80 percent of household goods sold to Kazakhstan's middle-class consumers. Many traders prefer to offer bribes at the border rather than pay legal customs charges described by former KNB chief Nartai Dutbaev as punishingly high.
Dutbaev says the day-to-day duties of Kazakhstan's border guards have swelled to include tasks for which they are poorly suited and trained, including the detection of contraband and other criminal activity.
"Border guards stand at the frontier and guard our state borders with the purpose of ensuring that people and vehicles cross the border in proper accordance with our laws. Their responsibilities should be providing proper documents needed to cross the border -- visas and the like," Dutbaev says.
"It's not necessary to saddle border guards with additional functions related to things like contraband, for example. For that we have customs officials and financial police. They should be fighting those kinds of crimes."
A number of Kazakh officials also say poor training and morale are to blame for instability within the service.
The funeral of Colonel Turganbek Stambekov and his wife was held in Almaty on January 3. Twenty high-ranking border personnel were killed in the same plane crash on December 25.
Chelakh, who said he was pressured into a false confession, has indicated that he was the victim of hazing, a common Soviet-era practice that has grown worse in the chaotic years of independence.
Subsequent incidents also point to a pattern of abuse. In June, 11 conscripts deserted the Tersairyk border post, also on the Kazakh-Chinese border. They were later granted formal victim status after it emerged they had been beaten and taunted by their superiors.
And in October, a skirmish broke out between border guards and financial police serving in the northern Pavlodar region near the Russian border.
Vladislav Kosaryov, a member of the Kazakh parliamentary Committee on International Affairs, Defense, and Security, acknowledges such violence is often spurred by a competition for bribes at commercially important posts. But he adds that poor selection and training standards have only intensified the problem, with most conscripts "cowed and humiliated."
"The importance of education and training is something that's totally dropped from the focus of the commanders," Kosaryov says. "Kudos to those border guards who fought off the financial police -- it speaks well of them as soldiers. But it's the moral conditions that need to be significantly improved."
Abai Brekeshev, the deputy head of the border service, has been named to replace Stambekov as the agency's temporary leader. He will be tasked with implementing new legislation, passed within days of the Shymkent crash, aimed at improving draft procedures and training for border conscripts.
Lack Of Autonomy
But many critics say more fundamental changes are needed in addition to stability at the top. The border service, which briefly functioned as an independent agency, was later moved under the supervision of the Defense Ministry and has since shifted to the control of Kazakhstan's KNB.
Some critics say this lack of autonomy has further hampered the service -- particularly at a time when both terrorism fears and growing obligations to regional trade and security bodies like the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Belarus-Russia-Kazakhstan Customs Union have put a priority on border issues.
Zhukeev says the border service cannot be fully reformed until it is restored as an independent agency and put under the supervision of a seasoned expert -- like the service's founder, Bolat Zakiev, who served from 1992 to 2008 and, Zhukeev notes, "survived seven KNB chairmen."
"They need an extremely strong leader in charge, someone who knows his business and has the trust of the country's leadership," he says. "It's wrong to bring in amateurs, and it's wrong to put in political appointees."
Written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondent Kazis Toguzbaev in Almaty