Wednesday, 19 December 2001

CENTRAL ASIA: IMAGINARY AND REAL BORDERS

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By Anara Tabyshalieva (12/19/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Vladimir Lenin in his letter to the Communists of Turkestan in 1920 asked them to investigate how many states should be there and what they should be named. 80 years ago, the idea of sovereign and independent ethnic-based states was alien and exotic for the locals. The concepts on the division of Turkestan were vague.

BACKGROUND: Vladimir Lenin in his letter to the Communists of Turkestan in 1920 asked them to investigate how many states should be there and what they should be named. 80 years ago, the idea of sovereign and independent ethnic-based states was alien and exotic for the locals. The concepts on the division of Turkestan were vague. The Bolsheviks applied to Vasily Bartol’d, a well-known scholar on Central Asia, with the question how they should divide the region. He warned them that Central Asia had no historic experience of the paradigm of an ethnic state, and it would be a great mistake to divide the region along ethnic lines now. Nevertheless, the current borders and communication infrastructure were designed based on a strong belief of the ‘unbreakable union’ of fifteen Soviet republics and their ‘eternal interdependence’. As a result numerous segments of the borders, in some cases disputed, were never delimitated or demarcated. Now each country is able to communicate with some parts of its own country only via its neighbors. The most intricate maze of border patchwork is the Ferghana Valley, where life-styles have traditionally been based on intensive trade, communications, and pilgrimage.  The fragmentation of Central Asia is a painful and unpleasant lesson for the local population. With the imaginary administrative borders of Soviet times having become real ones, some locals face real borders for the first time in their lives. A visa requirement was first imposed by Turkmenistan, then by Uzbekistan. It becomes a serious impediment for the cross-border migration of labor and trade, like women from Uzbekistan crossing borders to collect cotton in Kyrgyzstan, or families from Kyrgyzstan going to work in tobacco plantations in Kazakhstan. In the light of the war in Afghanistan, the leaders of two largest countries, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have made a positive step toward long-awaited cooperation on the border issue. In November, the presidents signed a Treaty on the Delimitation of the State Border, an agreement covering 96 per cent of the interstate border, while three remaining border areas will be resolved in six months. Another constructive move in November is an agreement of Kazakh president Nazarbaev and Tajik president Rakhmonov on the "immediate" resumption of rail traffic between the two countries. Kazakhstan unilaterally suspended rail communication in late October to prevent a possible wave of Afghan refugees. 

IMPLICATIONS: The significance of these two positive signs should not be exaggerated. Since September 11, a new round of struggle against terrorism has caused tighter border and visa regimes, leading to unprecedented suffering for the poor and seasonal workers in Central Asia. Each Central Asian country started to expel travelers from neighboring states. During the ongoing Operation Migrant, Kazakhstan has deported more than 5 thousand CIS citizens for violating the country's visa regime. Extra security generates obstacles for the movement of ordinary people, especially small-scale entrepreneurs. New complicated border procedures, together with a Soviet-styled registration (propiska), contribute to further distress. Another widespread tool of “cold peace” among Central Asian states is taxation. Borders are a new source of unofficial income for law-enforcement, border guards and custom officers. Corruption in the border services is hence rampant. Recently, Turkmen President Saparmurad Turkmenbashi Niyazov The Great publicly dismissed border guard officials and stripped them of their military rank for accepting bribes. In the last two years, security measures in Uzbekistan has resulted in the shooting of Tajik, Kyrgyz and Kazakh citizens along the Uzbek border. There are many cases of Uzbek border guards moving Uzbek border posts into Kyrgyz and Tajik territory. Kyrgyz and Tajik citizens also repeatedly complain that Uzbekistan’s border guards move into their territories in order to punish real or imaginary militants. Uzbekistan government’s decision to mine its border with Tajikistan has led to numerous deaths of seasonal migrant workers returning home. About 60 people, mainly civilians, have been killed by land mines along the Tajik-Uzbek border, and three along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. The number of Uzbekistani victims is unknown. The Washington-Tashkent alliance has increased Uzbekistan’s dominant role in the region. Some think that its pressure on its neighbors may increase. This could lead to the further repression of zealous Muslims and other religious believers, but in continued land mining and the hurried one-sided demarcation of borders with weaker countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan’s fight against terrorism threatens people in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Cross-border populations are increasingly afraid of the so-called antiterrorist actions of Uzbekistan rather than real terrorists.  For many centuries, holy shrines (mazars) play a significant role in the life of local believers, mostly women. The numerous mazars in Central Asia disregards the new borders of post-Soviet countries. The Ferghana valley has the highest concentration of devout believers and holy places located along the borders of three states. Currently some mazars common to all Muslims are under the control of different states, and pilgrims are forced to suspend their traditional visits to the shrines. The problem of the management of holy places along international borders might appear in the future agenda of regional interstate relations.

CONCLUSIONS: In Central Asia, there is an urgent need to encourage cross-border trade and free communication among citizens of the region, to increase interstate movement and information flows, especially in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Public opinion on the border disorder nevertheless has very little impact on the governments of the region. Poverty and a lack of good governance exacerbate the border problems greatly contributing to instability in the region. International terrorism, violent religious extremism, organized crime, drug trafficking and refugees represent growing challenges to Central Asian security. There is a clear understanding that in Central Asia’s security environment these challenges and border uncertainty have become closely intertwined. In this light, the resolution of the numerous border problems in a friendly and non-discriminatory way is urgently needed. 

AUTHOR BIO: Anara Tabyshalieva is a visiting scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University-SAIS. She was the director of the Institute for Regional Studies (An NGO in Kyrgyzstan), and a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst All rights reserved

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