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Russia Slaps Tougher Controls on Kazak Border
Three regional governments in southern Russia have tightened up controls on the border with Kazakstan, spelling economic disaster for thousands of local residents.
Officials from the Orenburg and Saratov oblasts and the Altai Region said the measures were aimed at stemming the flow of drugs and contraband goods into southern Russia.
However, Kazak observers believe the move was sanctioned by Moscow in a bid to put increased pressure on the government in Astana and flex its political muscles in the region as a whole.
According to an article which appeared in the Kazak newspaper Megapolis, "The movement of residents in the border regions will be subject to document checks whilst non-residents will be issued individual and collective passes by the Federal Border Service."
Local administrations in all three Russian regions claim that the "measures have been taken in accordance with the law governing the State Border of the Russian Federation".
Settlements falling within the so-called "border zone" have been defined in official documentation and will be marked by special signs.
Residents on both sides of the border are appalled by the new developments, since many rely on cross-border trade for their livelihood.
Oleg Kovalenko, who lives in the Ashysai settlement in Western Kazakstan, said, "Our district has very tight links with the Sol-Iletsk region of the Orenburg oblast. A significant part of the population earns a living by selling goods in Russia.
"Before, people on the Kazak side traded mainly in agricultural produce but now it's the other way around. Our settlement is remote and the distribution of provisions is bad. We're going to find it very hard to live without Russian exports."
The move could deliver a serious blow to the Kazak economy as a whole. Arman Tekebaev, political correspondent for the Almaty Times, comments, "It's well known that Kazakstan is eager to cash in on its position as a transit corridor between Russia and the other Central Asian states.
"Haulage duties make up a significant part of the republic's economy. But, in their pursuit of profit, the Kazak authorities have noticeably relaxed controls on freight passing through the country."
Several railway lines from Kazakstan into Russia cut across the three regions concerned. One rail route from Orenburg to Saratov actually passes through Western Kazakstan and it remains to be seen how the new border controls will affect communications between the two oblasts.
But the new regulations will certainly have a negative impact on both Russian and Kazak industries which rely heavily on one another for both raw materials and human resources.
The introduction of border controls marks a new twist in Russian-Kazak relations which have blown hot and cold since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Recently, however, an agreement was signed between the two countries allowing free movement across the border without a visa regime.
To all intents and purposes, the January decision has been taken on a local level and concerns only the eastern and western stretches of the Russian-Kazak border. However, it is likely that other Russian oblasts will follow the example of their neighbours.
The Russian authorities complain that the Kazak border guards lack the resources to tackle the influx of Chinese contraband goods or drugs from Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Mikhail Kolesnikov, an expert from the Institute of Russia and China, said, "It's a reasonable explanation since Central Asia, including Kazakstan, is the main source and transit route for drugs being smuggled into Russia and then out to Western Europe."
It is not yet clear whether the initiative was taken by local authorities in the "border zone" or whether they were acting on instructions from Moscow.
However, against the backdrop of widespread centralisation of power in Russia, it seems unlikely that regional administrations would act independently of the Kremlin. The fact that the measures have been announced by three separate regions simultaneously indicates that this was not a spontaneous decision.
Political analyst Saken Belgibaev says, "The centralised government in Russia is the strongest it has been since the fall of the Soviet Union. For this reason, in any initiative taken by local Russian authorities, one can see the hand of the Kremlin."
Most observers agree that the new border controls mark a thinly veiled attempt to bring political pressure to bear on Astana. Under Vladimir Putin's leadership, the Kremlin has made concerted efforts to strengthen its position in the region.
The recent example of Georgia has served as a warning to all the former Soviet republics. In December, Moscow imposed a visa regime on the South Caucasian state following claims that Tbilisi was allowing Chechen rebel fighters to take refuge in the notorious Pankisi Gorge. The visa regime could have disastrous consequences for Georgia's already fragile economy.
But, according to political analyst Akhmet Makhmutov, the latest developments in Central Asia could also serve to damage Kazakstan's standing in the region as a whole.
"Until recently Russia was Kazakstan's most loyal neighbour," says Makhmutov. "With the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan, the countries bordering our republic showed us very little good will. Uzbekistan, for example, made no secret of its territorial claims on Kazakstan.
"But Russia's actions could persuade our neighbours to adopt a tougher stance. If Kazakstan's main ally behaves in this way, then what's to stop the other states from following suit?"
However, despite the serious implications of the new border controls in southern Russia, the issue has enjoyed little coverage in the Kazak press. The authorities in Astana have yet to make an official reaction, indicating that they are keen to play down its significance at a time when relations with Kazakstan's immediate neighbours are just beginning to stabilise.
Adil Kojikhov is an analyst with the Agency for Political Research in Almaty
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