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Border issues between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

Written by on Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Kazakhstan, Politics and Society

Central Asian countries face numerous problems in the delimitation and demarcation of their borders. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, China, and all five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – accepted the old Soviet borders. Nevertheless, those administrative frontiers had never been clearly demarcated and thus pose a regional security threat to Central Asia today.

At present, there are territorial disputes between all of the former Soviet Central Asian republics. In particular, Uzbekistan is belligerent towards its neighbors, due to its larger population and stronger military in relation to other Central Asian countries with possible exception of Kazakhstan.

On the other hand, Kazakhstan, largest in geographic size, is more advanced than Uzbekistan economically, with a GDP almost four times as large. There are currently tensions between Tashkent and Astana as with all states. Thus, border issues have a long potential long-term destabilizing effect on the relative peace and security in Central Asia today between states.

In this article, the focus is placed on border disputes between the two largest states of Central Asia – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are vying to become the regional leader in Central Asia with varying degrees of success. From early 1990s, Uzbekistan was the leader in Central Asia up to the year 2000. From the year 2000, Kazakhstan’s economy doubled and Kazakhstan assumed a leadership position in the Central Asian region particularly after the Andijan events this past May.

In early 2000, Uzbekistan’s border guards undertook a unilateral demarcation of the border, by building outposts with neighboring Kazakhstan; Kazakhstan in turn reacted with unease. Ongoing border disputes – involving Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – have been a significant source of inter-state tension in Central Asia since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. A November 16, 2001 agreement signed by presidents Nazarbayev and Karimov delineates 96 percent of the over 1,200 mile Kazakhstani-Uzbekistani border. Both leaders indicated that the remaining border questions can be resolved diplomatically. A final agreement on border delimitation between the two states was reached in July 2003.

However, relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are not positive in the light of the border disputes, an unintended legacy of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s border issues shed light on the broader context of Central Asian regional security, and potential for military conflict.

In addition, Uzbekistan Ministry of Defense directly states that Tashkent views Astana as a probably military adversary and source of terrorist threats. These two most powerful states of Central Asia affect regional security more than other three Central Asian states because of their larger size in population, larger economies and relative political influence for dominance in the region.

The Case of the Bagys Settlement
The village of Bays is situated seven kilometers north of Tashkent. The area is part of the lands given for a lease to Uzbekistan from Kazakhstan during the Soviet era. Most of its inhabitants are ethnic Kazakhs and prefer Kazakhstan because of higher living standards. However, Uzbek police patrol the area. Under the agreement signed in 1991 between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, part of leased land did go back to Kazakhstan, but not Bagys itself.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the residents of Bagys hoped they would become part of Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan has been unwilling to cede the lands; Kazakhstan did not press the issue because Astana did not want to worsen relations with Tashkent. As a result, the status of the residents of Bagys remains unknown. Approximately half of the population still holds Kazakhstani passports, and half Uzbekistani.

In an attempt to show their frustration, the residents of Bagys took to the streets on December 31, 2000, proclaimed the Independent Kazakhstan Republic of Bagys and elected a president and a legislature.

In reality, the residents of Bagys wanted to be part of Kazakhstan, however, they were disappointed with the lack of support from Kazakhstan. The government of Kazakhstan has refrained from pressuring Tashkent, both to prevent negative reactions from Uzbekistan and to avoid setting any precedent from Slavic separatist movements in the north of Kazakhstan.

As a result of the aforementioned case, Kazakhstan established a Southern Military District and quickly deployed troops in the area to prevent any future intrusion on Kazakhstan’s territory.

By September 2000, the president of Uzbekistan issued a statement that Uzbekistan does not seek any territorial claims on any neighboring countries. Nonetheless, border negotiations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan proceeded very slowly in delimiting the frontier. In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that Uzbekistan continued to act provocatively. It was alleged that Uzbek border guards were unilaterally establishing border outposts in the territory of Kazakhstan. Moreover, both Uzbekistan and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan lack adequate resources to establish border outposts.

Amplified by the high population density of Kazakhstan’s southern oblasts border disputes center around water division, arable land, and pastures. Social tensions are already high due to economic stagnation and a high level of unemployment. In addition, reports about the growth of radical Islamic groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir add to the already accumulated tensions.

Since independence in 1991, there have not been any genuine efforts on the ground to demarcate the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. One option has been to resettle ethnic Kazakhstan from Bagys to other areas of Kazakhstan. However, this option would not set a good precedent for other numerous border disputes in the region. In addition, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have significant ethnic minorities on each other’s territory; 80-85% per cent of the 400, 000 Uzbeks that live in Kazakhstan are settled in the disputed border areas.

The primary motivating factor for the exodus been the strict border regime. Despite the fact that two states employ visa-free regime to cross the border, there are problems of harassment and strict border control. The border guards on both sides frequently ask for bribes.

Implication for Regional Security
In principle, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have resolved their border demarcation and delimitation in 2003. However, in reality, the border regime remains strict and tense. Since independence, there have been nineteen incidents recorded including one where four Kazakhstani and two Uzbekistani citizens were killed.

The trend is negative, and the prospects for peaceful coexistence in the border area between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan area slim at best. The security of the regional largely depends on the goodwill and peaceful resolutions of border disputes. Without resolving border disputes on a parity basis, the potential for armed conflict will be high. No country in the world needs armed conflict, especially in the early states of development of the state, nation, and the economy.

Given tightening border controls, it is hardly surprising that both ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakh minorities continue to migrate out of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan respectively. Even if demarcation is completed, both countries still face the daunting challenge of how to ensure freedom of movement across the border.

Although Tashkent and southern Kazakhstan, especially the center of Southern Kazakhstan oblast, Shymkent are closely tied economically, new border controls put future cooperation at risk.

Since, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan constitute the bulk of the Central Asian economies (around 80-85%) , it is important that they find ways to stimulate trade and freedom of movement in order to expand Central Asian economic integration and development.

President of Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev in his February 18, 2005 annual address to Kazakhstan people called for the creation of Central Asian Union. The Uzbek administration probably understood this gesture as Kazakhstan’s attempt for regional leadership in Central Asia rather than economic and political development of the entire Central Asia.

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  • James says:

    Great post, Nurzhan, and welcome!

    “Tashkent views Astana as a probably military adversary and source of terrorist threats.” It was my understanding that in Central Asia, any Islamic revival is stemming mainly from the Ferghana Valley, and that Islam in Kazakhstan is relatively moderate.

    So my question is this: is Tashkent just blowing smoke, or is there a legitimate argument to be made for this allegation?


  • Nurzhan says:

    Thanks James! Sorry for the late response. I just saw this :)

    Happy New Year 2011!

    As for your question, I think it is a combination of both.


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