Kazak Border Treaty Signed

Agreement seen as sealing a strong relationship between two regional neighbours.

Kazak Border Treaty Signed

Agreement seen as sealing a strong relationship between two regional neighbours.

The border between Kazakstan and Russia – the longest international land frontier in the world – has finally been settled after more than a decade of disputes and diplomacy.

Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin signed a treaty delimiting the 7,591 kilometre frontier in the Kremlin on January 18, some days after holding bilateral talks in Almaty.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia and Kazakstan have shared a porous, unclear border whose contours were accurate only within a margin of several kilometres. As this was almost impossible to police, the long border became a target for drug smugglers, people traffickers and illegal immigrants on their way towards Europe.

After official border talks began in August 1999, the two nations tried to reach agreement on all disputed sections, but the process had suffered numerous setbacks.

Both sides laid claim to at least 18 sections of land along the proposed frontier, the most important of which was the Imashev gas-condensate field, which lies on both sides of the border.

“We agreed on a parity division of this section and of the field itself, and to regulate issues of economic activity,” Putin told the media.

Further disputes were settled after the village of Ogneuporny – an almost exclusively Russian settlement – was ceded to Russia and a water-rich area on the border was given to Kazakstan, as Astana had wanted.

While the treaty took six years to prepare, this is considered to be a relatively swift timeframe in diplomatic terms.

“This process could have gone on for decades, but instead it was very quick and short,” said political scientist Sanat Kushkumbaev.

Putin described the treaty as “a clear confirmation of Russia’s acknowledgement of the sovereignty of Kazakstan, and a strengthening of the country’s statehood”. Nazarbaev added that the signing of the treaty disproved the idea that “Russia has any imperial pretensions”.

Officials and analysts have expressed optimism that the treaty does not contain any hidden pitfalls for either country. “In cases like these, there can always be compromises between friends that will suit both Kazakstan and Russia,” Putin said.

Nazarbaev noted that delimitation of the border - not physical demarcation - was under discussion.

“Freedom of crossing the border will be maintained for our citizens,” he said. “This frontier does not divide our countries and peoples, it unites them. It is one of friendship, a border of good-neighbourliness.”

Both leaders have stressed that the delimitation process will not create any difficulties for people seeking to cross the frontier. “On the contrary, its regulation will mean that all issues are solved – so that people who live on both sides of the border feel comfortable,” Putin said.

As Kazakstan is Russia’s main economic partner in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Moscow is certain to gain advantages from the introduction of an established border, while Kazakstan will also benefit.

However, analysts have warned that the treaty may yet spark a backlash in Russia. Nationalists have already expressed unhappiness with the Putin government, which they say is prepared to cede territory to its neighbours in the name of improved bilateral relations.

Putin’s 2004 decision to give some disputed territory to China caused great resentment, as did Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s suggestion that two of the Kurile islands off Russia’s Pacific coast should be ceded to Japan.

The signing of the treaty can be seen as a formal renunciation of claims to areas of northern Kazakstan where many ethnic Russians live, and to which nationalist groups have in the past said should revert to the Russian state.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, deputy speaker of the State Duma and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, has already called for a re-examination of the border with Kazakstan.

He told the radio station Ekho Moskvy, “There is delimitation today, tomorrow there will be demarcation, then Kazakstan will join NATO and maybe even the European Union, and we will be surrounded everywhere by hostile nations.”

Analysts argue that proper border demarcation on the ground would solve a number of problems, simplifying the visa regime for Russians to enter European countries, closing channels for illegal migration and curbing drug trafficking. Furthermore, it would improve trade figures since smuggling is currently widespread.

But a number of tasks lie ahead before demarcation can start, starting with ratification of the treaty by the parliaments of Russia and Kazakstan.

In order for the Imashev gas-condensate field to be developed, a joint Russian-Kazak company will have to be set up and a formal agreement signed to define how it should work.

Then both governments will have to map out the border, set up checkpoints, and decide what identification documents will be accepted by customs and passport officers.

Eduard Poletaev is IWPR’s Kazakstan project director in Almaty. IWPR contributor Zamir Karajanov contributed to this article.

Support our journalists