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

Kazak-Uzbek Border: Mapping Out the Future

Villagers living along a newly-drawn frontier fear they will lose out, whichever side they end up on.

Villagers living along Kazakstan’s border with Uzbekistan are waiting anxiously to see how their lives will be affected by the formal demarcation of the frontier.

Teams have already started work marking out the border, and residents of villages such as Jibek Joly are worried that their livelihoods will be disrupted by the imposition of strict new regulations.

Salmima, who lives in Jibek Joly, has a house right next to where the border will run.

“How are the border guards are going to set up border signs?” she asked. “I’ll have to relocate my stone wall, which has two livestock sheds attached to it. There won’t be any place for my cow on the part of the land that I’m allowed to keep, and this animal is the only source of income for our family. You know there are no jobs in our village.”

Although a delimitation agreement finalising where the 2,350 kilometre border between Kazakstan and Uzbekistan should run was signed in 2002, and some land subsequently changed hands, it was only on May 19 this year that both sides started the actual work of demarcation on the ground.

During Soviet times, it was all one country and local people could safely ignore the administrative lines separating the two republics. Houses were built without particular regard for which side of the border they stood on, but now that a formal border has been drawn it will sometimes go through someone’s back yard.

According to the head of the Kazak side of a joint demarcation commission, Murat Atanov, problems will be negotiated and dealt with on the ground, with each side making compromises on a case-by-case basis. He explained that if one disputed case is resolved in Kazakstan’s favour, the next one to arise will give Uzbekistan the benefit of the doubt.

Bekseit Dyusebaev, an official from the South Kazakstan regional administration who sits on the demarcation commission, acknowledges the extent of the problem, and admits that the practicalities are bound to be painful.

“The most difficult work will be in residential areas. Sometimes the border line runs not only though private plots, streets and fences, but also though people’s houses,” he told IWPR. “It is important that in these instances we don’t violate the rights of ordinary people on either side – which is one of the reasons why the inter-governmental demarcation commission was set up.”

The people most likely to be affected by compromise deals fear that they will have to sacrifice land and property in the process, and might end up as citizens of a different country.

Some Jibek Joly residents told IWPR they had seen a document showing that 20 houses and numerous farm buildings are slated for demolition.

“We fear that our house will be demolished,” said Karlygash, a young woman from Jibek Joly.

Some villagers say they have disregarded warnings by continuing to farm all their land.

“Officials did visit me and my neighbours to inform us that that the border line would pass through our land,” said 40-year old Amantai. “But my private land plot is the only way for me to feed my family, so I took a risk and planted vegetables.”

A 35-year old resident of Yntymak, another village sitting astride the frontier, was boiling with anger as he told IWPR how worried he is that he might end up as a Kazak national living in Uzbekistan.

“It looks like the authorities can change my country without asking me,” said the man, who asked not to be named.

He would then face a tough choice – either to keep his property but become an Uzbek citizen, or lose everything in order to retain his Kazak passport.

“Will I have to leave the place I live in and move out? We remember very well how relatives of ours lived on tenterhooks for two years after the delimitation – Kazakstan did not compensate them for the house, while the Uzbek authorities tried to evict them,” he said.

The 2002 delimitation agreement did not decide the fate of all the villages located immediately on the border, but some disputed land - and any villages on it – was swapped to make the border map appear equitable. After lengthy negotiations, the Kazak village of Turkestanets found itself part of Uzbekistan, in a deal which allowed Kazakstan to retain an important water reservoir it might otherwise have lost.

Few villagers who currently hold Kazak citizenship would be happy to lose it, even if that allowed them to keep their land. Kazakstan is experiencing greater economic growth than Uzbekistan, and becoming foreign nationals would make it harder for these farmers to sell to markets or seek other employment in Kazak towns.

Many senior citizens interviewed by IWPR said they were worried they would lose their Kazak government-paid pensions if they became Uzbek citizens.

Demarcation of the Kazak-Uzbek border, which passes through mountains, deserts lands and marshland, is expected to last three years.

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

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