Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak-Uzbek Border Lottery

Villagers living along the frontier in limbo as they wait to see which side of the line they end up on.
By Olga Dosybieva

Villagers along the frontier between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan have long known that officials were heading their way to translate lines on a map into an international border that would slice through their neighbourhoods – in some cases their homes.


But when Uzbek frontier guards put up a sign in the small village of Kaplanbek on August 11 to say where one country starts and another finishes, locals suddenly found themselves face to face with a difficult future. Kazak nationals whose property ends up “abroad” say they are being offered only miserly compensation.


The contours of the 2,350 kilometre border were set out in a delimitation agreement between the two former Soviet states as long ago as 2002, but it was not until earlier this year that the process of practical demarcation began on the ground.


So far the joint commission has worked on rural stretches, and Kaplanbek is the first residential area to have the frontier lines set out. It is a test case since it is only the first of many villages and bigger towns where abstract lines on a map will impact on people’s lives.


In this village, the new formalised border swallows up a 140-metre strip inside what used to be accepted as Kazakstan territory. Many locals had set up shops, cages and currency-exchange kiosks on this land to benefit from the cross-border traffic. But the new frontier is marked out right on the banks of the river Keles, so that the strip of land and all the businesses that stand on it become part of Uzbekistan.


When they saw what had happened, traders held a protest at the border checkpoint manned by Kazak officers. Local government and police officials arrived to address the crowd and promise them other land inside Kazakstan so that they could relocate their businesses.


As part of government’s policy to support residents affected by the demarcation, the Kazak authorities promised to compensate them for the loss of livelihoods.


Marking out the frontier was always going to mean some painful compromises.


Nurali Kirgizaliev, chief of police in Saryagash district where Kaplanbek is located, confirmed to IWPR that the Uzbeks’ apparent territorial gain in the village was in fact correct under the terms of the negotiated demarcation.


“These border villages really are a headache for us,” he admitted. The Uzbek-Kazak frontier commission has agreed that where one case has been resolved in a way that favours one country, the other side should benefit when the next issue comes up.


As Kazaks and Uzbeks living in border areas wait in trepidation to see how they are affected, they find themselves in a kind of limbo, too uncertain about the future to plan ahead.


Their anxiety is made worse by signs that the process is going to take much longer than expected.


Isak Ospanov, an aide to the local government chief in Saryagash district, admits things are moving slowly. He is in a position to know since he is also a member of the demarcation commission.


“When the delimitation was completed in November 2002, they allocated a year and a half for the demarcation process. Nearly two years have passed, yet the bilateral commission is still discussing what should happen to disputed areas,” said Ospanov.


But he insists, nevertheless, that “everything is going to plan”.


Residents of Saryagash district told IWPR they were disappointed at the lack of progress.


“How long are they going to drag on with the border [demarcation]?” asked a young man who introduced himself as Kairat, from the village of Kokterek, which is also scheduled for demarcation. “It’s so unsettling. You take a sideways step and you’re in foreign territory. Who knows where the border lies?”


The authorities in Kazakstan insist that no one will lose out, and have promised a relocation package or compensation for those who lose land or homes.


“We will provide housing in Kazakstan, in any town apart from [the capital] Astana, to all Kazak citizens who find themselves on Uzbek territory following the precise demarcation of the border,” said Ospanov.


But many complain that the money being offered is insufficient. Those who own allotments with dachas on them say they will get nothing.


“What do we need this compensation for? There are virtually no good plots of land left in the village where you could build a home,” said an old man from Kokterek, who declined to be named. “And we can’t leave either: the housing has been valued too cheaply.”


This man said a relative of his had been offered 7,000 US dollars for his farmhouse – but in this district the money would not buy him more than a “ruined hut” for his family of 10.


There was no question of him being allowed to stay, since the border was going to run right through where his house now stands. “It turns out he’s having lunch in Uzbekistan and sleeping in Kazakhstan,” said the elderly villager.


Olga Dosybieva is editor-in-chief of Rabat newspaper in Shymkent.