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

Kazakstan Tightens Border Controls

A spate of extremist attacks in the CIS region prompts Astana to crackdown on illegal migration.
By Zamir Karajanov

Kazakstan is to tighten its border controls in an attempt to stop extremist groups from using its territory as a transit route or a hideout.


The former Soviet republic has been warned about its porous borders by its neighbours before, but recent outrages in the CIS region - such as the bombings in Uzbekistan and this month’s Beslan school tragedy - has prompted the authorities to act.


While Kazakstan is not considered to be a hotbed of extremist activity, its long, largely unprotected border with Russia, China and Uzbekistan makes it an attractive option for outlawed groups.


Political scientist Adil Nurakishev told IWPR, “Kazakstan is attractive to terrorists as a transit country and also as a place they can hide from the law-enforcement bodies and special services.”


President Nursultan Nazarbaev called for stronger border security measures during a September 7 official function, at which he discussed the school hostage tragedy in the Russian town of Beslan, in which more than 300 people - many of them children - were killed.


“I have tasked the government together with all law enforcement bodies to take additional measures to strengthen border and migration services, to work out an action plan to prevent illegal migration and cross-border smuggling and to toughen passport and visa control,” he said.


A new interior ministry body to toughen the registration of foreign citizens entering Kazakstan was set up the following day and, at a parliamentary committee meeting on September 10, the authorities announced that the republic was to tighten controls on its southern border with Uzbekistan and its western frontier with Azerbaijan.


Security ministry official Vladimir Bozhko told the meeting that an investigation was now underway into whether extremist groups were establishing safe routes from Central Asia to Pakistan via the Caucasus.


“Together with our Uzbek colleagues, we are checking if reports that Kazakstan is being used as a transit point by individual terrorists moving from Uzbekistan via Aktau [in western Kazakstan] to [the Azerbaijani capital] Baku and then on to training camps [on the Afghan border with Pakistan],” he said.


Analysts say that this route is far longer than the usual one via the Uzbek-Afghan border, but may offer greater chance of success than trying to penetrate Uzbekistan’s heavily-patrolled frontier.


According to Bozhko, there is no shortage of guides willing to take small groups of around four travellers across the border for as little as one US dollar.


These guides sprang up to meet demand from the tens of thousands of migrant seasonal workers from neighbouring Central Asian republics who come to Kazakstan in search of employment, or pass through the country on their way to Russia.


Around a million are believed to enter Kazakstan every year, and official figures suggest that as many as 15,000 are deported each month.


“An entire system has formed around [illegal seasonal workers],” Nazarbaev said.


The problem of illegal migration has been growing since Central Asian republics gained their independence in 1991. And there are now fears that extremists are among the migrants.


Andrei Chebotaryov, coordinator of the Kazak National Research Institute, told IWPR, “This problem [of migration] is now being connected with a wave of terrorism.


“Kazakstan is constantly criticised by its neighbours who claim that after terrorist attacks are committed in their countries, the perpetrators go and hide on Kazak territory.”


Chebotaryov added that a number of extremists suspected of supporting rebels in Chechnya had, after their arrest, been found to have travelled through Kazakstan.


The Uzbeks have been the most vocal critics of Astana’s border policy. At the end of July, following the trial of those accused in the March and April suicide bombings in Tashkent, media reports quoted Uzbekistan’s prosecutor general as saying that the suspects had used Kazakstan as a transit country, and had also set up training grounds there.


Earlier, Uzbek citizens accused of a 1999 bombing blamed on the outlawed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were traced to Kazakstan and later extradited to face trial in Tashkent.


In 2000, Kazakstan was also used as hiding place by Uighur separatists who seek independence for the Turkic-speaking people of China’s autonomous Xinjiang region. After their hideout was discovered by Kazak police, following a tip-off by Kyrgyz security officials, a shoot-out took place in which all the Uighur fugitives were killed.


Zamir Karajanov is an independent journalist in Almaty