Vienna, May 31 – The governments of post-Soviet Central Asia have not yet reached agreement on most of the borders among them, and even where they have, many local people reject them, viewing the accords as a betrayal of their national interests, situations that point to more clashes ahead.
This danger was highlighted 10 days ago when 150 Tajiks, accompanied by local officials and security officers, crossed into Kyrgyzstan in order to destroy a dam that they said was blocking the flow of water to their fields. When Kyrgyz officials attempted to photograph what they were doing, the Tajiks attacked them.
And Kyrgyz media reported at the time that things were prevented from getting out of hand only thanks to the decision of a Kyrgyz border guard to threaten the use of lethal force if they did not withdraw. But the intervention worked: the Kyrgyz agreed to open the flow of water to the Tajiks.
Now, the current issue of Moscow’s Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kur’yer, an admittedly not disinterested source, carries a major article of the state of border disputes across the Central Asian region, disputes that this mouthpiece of Russia’s military industrial complex says are likely to intensify (www.vpk-news.ru/article.asp?pr_sign=archive.2008.237.articles.cis_01).
While there are virtually no territorial disputes between Central Asian countries and those outside that region – the continuing disagreement with Iran over the demarcation of the Caspian seabed is the exception – each of the states within it has problems of a greater or less degree with all of its neighbors.
Uzbekistan, for example, has problems with all of them. Tashkent has problems with Tajikistan because of mine fields laid on the Tajik side of the border during the civil war there a decade ago and because of the existence of one Uzbek enclave there. But its problems with most of its other neighbors directly involve disputes over territory and where the border should be.
Aleksandr Knyazev, a professor at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, told the journal that the situation between Uzbekistan and Kygyzstan is especially complicated. “On the territory of Kyrgyzstan, there are four enclaves of Uzbekistan. There is one Kyrgyz enclave on the territory of Uzbekistan.”
Such formations create “great difficulties for the population on both sides” of the border, he continued, especially given disagreements over where that border passes. Nearly 400 km – in 58 separate sections -- of the 1375 km of the border between the two remain in dispute despite more than ten years of negotiations.
Uzbekistan has problems with Turkmenistan as well. Approximately a fifth of the border between the two remains undemarcated and in dispute because both sides are interested in access to the oil beneath this region. The Moscow journal says that “experts predict” that any conflict here could quickly lead to “active military clashes” between the two.
Uzbekistan has almost completed a border demarcation accord with Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan itself reached one with Kyrgyzstan in 2001. But neither agreement will necessarily hold. Many Kyrgyz politicians have declared that the earlier border agreement was a betrayal of the country’s national interests.
Most of these disputes involve relatively small amounts of land – no more than 10-15,000 square kilometers – but they are important in a double sense. On the one hand, these border areas frequently are significant sources of water, oil, gas or other natural resources that the hard-pressed countries of the region have few choices but to pursue.
And on the other, borders, far more than many in more stable areas appear to recognize, are a easily understood way of defining what a country is, and political leaders inside Central Asia or indeed within the former Soviet space more broadly can use disputes about them to define what their countries are or should be and thus bolster their own authority.
Consequently, they may have an interest in either playing up or exploiting what to outsiders appear to be very small issues, although as Voyenno-Promyshlenyy Kur’yer reminds, it is not difficult to imagine how such insignificant disputes could quickly escalate into the kind of violence that might require outside intervention.