Prague, 31 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An intensifying border dispute between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan calls attention to the obstacles all the countries in Central Asia still face in coping with the challenge of building state sovereignty.
The current dispute has been simmering for some time. But it gained new prominence earlier this month when Uzbekistan officials placed border post signs in the Saryagach region of South Kazakhstan province, despite the absence of any border agreement between the two countries. The media in Kazakhstan immediately denounced the move as a land and power grab by Tashkent.
The dispute escalated still further last Thursday when Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov criticized Uzbek officials for what he said was a totally illegitimate action. Saying that "we have informed the Uzbek side in strong terms that its steps are inadmissible," Idrisov said that Kazakhstan "will not give up an inch of land."
Because this conflict has not resulted in violence, many observers have been inclined to play down its importance and to suggest that last week's exchange will quickly lead to talks on the situation. That may happen, but even if it does, the dispute shows that Central Asian states have a long way to go to solidify their statehood.
All five have secured international recognition and have projected power over most of the territory they claim as their own. But they have not yet met the third criterion of independent statehood as defined in the current international environment: the establishment of internationally recognized and uncontested borders.
The absence of such borders, the historical record suggests, not only threatens relations among states but can also undermine the ability of the respective governments to maintain their control over their own populations and territories. And these in turn can generate a spiral of instability which can sweep away all other achievements the states involved may have made.
There are three basic reasons why these countries have not yet succeeded in doing so almost a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to their new status as independent states.
First, like all other former Soviet republics, the countries of Central Asia must contend with the always difficult task of converting internal administrative borders into internationally recognized state boundaries, a task all the more problematic because of the way in which these borders were drawn in the first place.
When they became independent, these countries had to transform what had been internal administrative lines over which their governments had little control into state borders with all the attributes of such frontiers -- checkpoints, customs facilities, and border patrols.
That challenge, which would have been difficult and expensive in the best of circumstances, was complicated by Soviet history. Moscow drew the current borders in Central Asia for its own convenience, to heighten and institutionalize ethnic conflicts as well as to integrate these republics in a way that would help to block any moves toward independence.
Thus, Moscow worked to ensure that each Central Asian republic had sizable ethnic minorities from the titular nationality of its neighbors, and it worked to structure the transport and economic infrastructure in such a way that none of them could exist easily except in the closest commerce with the others.
That arrangement limited their chances for independence in the past, but it creates the basis for irredentist challenges and economic conflicts now. Second, the post-Soviet states have been forced to develop this aspect of their sovereignty even as Moscow and the international community calls on them to yield some of their state authority in order to participate in expanded international commerce.
Since 1991, Moscow and the West, each for its own reasons, has urged that the countries of this region not move to create the kind of borders that had been typical of the international system in the past, but rather to set up border arrangements more typical of the integration patterns of Western Europe.
The Russian authorities see this as a means of promoting Moscow's influence through the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the West views such a commitment to integration as a test of the worthiness of these states for inclusion in broader international organizations.
And third, the Central Asian republics are forced to take this step while dealing with population pressures, water shortages, and widespread political instability.
Because of population growth, each of the Central Asian countries is interested in gaining as much territory as it can to raise food. Because of water shortages in the region, each wants to have as much of the watershed as possible. And because of widespread political instability, each is concerned about setting up buffer areas around its core area.
These three factors help to explain why the border conflict between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan may prove to be far more important than a superficial glance might suggest. And they also underscore the basic truth of American poet Robert Frost's observation that "good fences make good neighbors."