Kazakstan: Frontier Dispute Deadlock Provokes Tensions

A long-running territorial dispute with Uzbekistan is fraying Kazak nerves.

Kazakstan: Frontier Dispute Deadlock Provokes Tensions

A long-running territorial dispute with Uzbekistan is fraying Kazak nerves.

Opposition parties in Kazakstan are seeking to capitalise on growing public discontent over a protracted territorial dispute with Uzbekistan.

An intergovernmental commission on demarcating the one thousand km-long frontier has yet to reach agreement, despite the fact that a deadline for resolving the dispute passed well over a month ago.

A number of recent incidents have been linked to the wrangle, prompting fears that the issue could escalate if not resolved quickly.

On May 1, two Uzbek soldiers were injured in clashes with alleged Kazak smugglers at the Gishkoprik border post in the Saryagash region of the South Kazakstan oblast.

Only around 54 km of the border, around four per cent, is disputed. The contentious areas are the villages of Bagys and Turkestanets and the Arnasai dam on the Shardara reservoir.

It is the Kazak inhabitants of Bagys and Turkestanets who are the source for most of the current unrest, as they fear that the negotiations could see them eventually living under Uzbek rule. "People are tired of the uncertainty. They don't know what awaits their children. What country will they be citizens of?" said one villager.

In January locals announced the creation of the Bagys Kazak Republic to draw attention to their plight. Subsequently, the small nationalist Azat party accompanied village representatives to Astana to protest at the government's failure to resolve the issue.

Azat was launched at the beginning of the Nineties before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its call for a sovereign Kazak republic were initially supported by the public, but after independence the party's appeal began to fade. It sees the current border dispute as a means of reviving its fortunes.

At a meeting with the inhabitants of the border villages on May 8, party representatives declared that they were concerned about the fate of local Kazaks and were prepared to stand up for their interests.

When asked by IWPR whether Azat was merely capitalising on the frontier tensions for its own ends, a party official, who preferred not to be named, said, "We're patriots and we want the disputed territories to go to Kazakstan. I think that a lot of Kazaks will support us on that."

Signs that unrest over the issue is spreading was evident at the beginning of May, when dozens of students from higher education establishments in Almaty picketed the Uzbek embassy.

Meanwhile, the Kazak state secretary and minister for foreign affairs, Kasymzhomart Tokaev, called on journalists to refrain from whipping up passions over the frontier dispute.

For the moment, the governments of both sides are trying to play down the problem. At a meeting in Shymkent on March 12, their respective prime ministers announced that, whatever the outcome of the border demarcation, it would not ruin relations between the two states.

Astana's caution over the dispute can be explained by the fact that it realises it will have to compromise to achieve its goals - perhaps the most important one being acquisition of the Arnasai dam, an important source of hydro-electric energy, presently located on Uzbek territory.

When asked by this IWPR correspondent which was the priority section of the border for Kazakstan, Nurlan Seitjapparov, the deputy akim of the South Kazakstan oblast, who also serves on the inter-governmental frontier commission, replied, "The dam, of course."

Given this, analysts suggest that the concerns of Bagys and Turkestanets residents may be overlooked. The villagers, however, seem to be unaware of the government's priorities and hope their appeals will be taken seriously.

Olga Dosybieva is an Interfax correspondent in South Kazakstan

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