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Kazakhstan/Uzbekistan: Border Residents Demand End To Uncertainty

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, two villages astride the Kazakh-Uzbek border have lived in limbo, uncertain of whether they are in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. In late December, about 500 of the villagers protested their ambiguous status, declaring themselves independent and electing a president and parliament. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill looks at the background of the problem and reports that the latest developments may have grave consequences.

Prague, 9 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For 55 years, Central Asian neighbors Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were constituent republics of the USSR. In those days, it hardly mattered that the two shared control of some 5,000 square kilometers of land around their common border.

But now, 11 years later, the Kazakh residents of the territory have decided that it matters a lot. As a resident of the territory's village of Baghys put it recently: "For the last 10 years, we have had no idea what country we are citizens of. I am still holding my red [Soviet] passport issued in 1974. I can't change it, because I don't know what country I belong to. We hoped our government would solve that problem, but our government has forgotten about us."

The villagers of Baghys and nearby Turkestanets rose up on 28 December in protest over the situation. Some 500 people -- one-fourth of the villages' population -- turned out for the demonstration. They came up with an inventive way to dramatize their plight -- they seceded. That is, they declared themselves independent and elected a president and a 10-member parliament.

For many of the participants, the Baghys-Turkestanets declaration of independence may have been only a gesture. But in some quarters, it was taken seriously. The head of Almaty's Communist Party, Arsentii Apolimov, said that one secession could lead to another: "This caused very serious anxiety among us because it could be the beginning of big trouble for Kazakhstan, the beginning of Kazakhstan's collapse, territorial collapse. Today one raion [precinct] announces [independence], tomorrow an Uighur raion will do the same, then a raion populated by ethnic Koreans will demand the same, then Russian Cossacks may start rioting."

The Uzbek side took the demonstration seriously, as well. Uzbek police broke up the rally and arrested Almaty physician and activist Oral Saulebay, who had come to Baghys to assist the protestors. Saulebay, an outspoken member of the Kazakh AZAT (Freedom) movement, demonstrated his rhetorical style at the demonstration in Baghys.

"In accord with the will of the Almighty, long live the Independent Baghys Kazakh Republic! We citizens of the neighboring Kazakh Republic cordially congratulate the citizens of the Independent Baghys Kazakh Republic on this great victory!" Saulebay told protesters.

Border issues are rife among the neighboring states of Central Asia, as governments seek to sort out uncertainties left by a half-century of Soviet rule. Over the 11 years of their independence, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have amicably settled most disputes over their 1,750-kilometer common border. But they have set aside for further deliberation the difficult problem of the territory that encompasses Baghys-Turkestanets.

It is not as though gold mines or oil wells enrich the region. The area is sparsely populated by people of the land, ethnic Kazakhs who are mostly cotton growers. During the Soviet era, the two republics both claimed control of the area, with Uzbekistan using the land for military purposes and Kazakhstan for political ones.

One reason that Uzbekistan may now be reluctant to surrender its claim is the disparity between the two countries in terms of population density. Kazakhstan sprawls over 2.7 million square kilometers with a population density of only about six people per square kilometer. Smaller Uzbekistan, with just 447,000 square kilometers, has 56 people per square kilometer. The government in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, may be eager to gain more living room.

For its part, the secession movement of Baghys-Turkestanets seemed to begin as a bit of show business to draw attention to the villagers' plight. But in the last few days, it has taken on a more serious aspect.

A small group of protesters turned out on 3 January in front of the Uzbek Embassy in Almaty demanding that Oral Saulebay be freed.

The pressure worked -- to a degree. The Uzbek authorities agreed to turn Saulebay over to local Kazakh police, and on 7 January they did. But soon afterward, agents of Kazakhstan's Committee of National Security, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, took Saulebay from police custody. His friends say his whereabouts are unknown.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service broadcaster Merkhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report.)