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

Tensions Rise on Disputed Kazak Border

Astana foreign ministry protests after Uzbek border guards open fire on a Kazak family
By IWPR Central Asia

Nurmat Asylbaev had nothing to hide.

He was driving home to Kazakstan with his wife and daughter after visiting relatives in neighbouring Uzbekistan. So when Uzbek border guards stopped the car near the village of Azatbash and ordered him to get out of his vehicle, he was happy to oblige.

But then, according to Asylbaev, the guards refused to let him cross the border unless he handed over a large sum of money - although he was not actually accused of any crime. Terrified, Asylbaev ran back to the car with the guards in hot pursuit.

He flung himself behind the wheel and set off in the direction of the Kazak frontier. The guards took up the chase. About 1.5km into Kazak territory, the Uzbeks fired gunshots at Asylbaev's car, then abruptly turned around and drove back to Azatbash. None of the occupants of the vehicle was injured.

The January shooting drama has again heightened tensions on the Kazak-Uzbek border and sparked a diplomatic row between Astana and Tashkent.

It is the second serious incident on the border in the past four months. Last October, a group of Uzbek customs officers reportedly attempted to abduct three Kazaks at gun-point from the village of Tonkeris in the Saryagash region. The Uzbeks were forced to leave the area when other residents interceded and snatched a handgun from one of the officials.

Complaints from Kazak citizens of harsh treatment at the hands of Uzbek border guards date from the early part of 2000 when an Uzbek government commission began to redraw the border with Kazakstan without entering into consultation with the Kazak authorities.

Political analyst Talgat Ismagambetov claims that Uzbekistan was in effect attempting to annex the so-called "disputed territories" between the two states.

Bigali Turarbekov, the head of a Kazak government commission on border demarcation, said that around 2,150km of the Kazak-Uzbek border was still under dispute.

The issue is largely the legacy of a Soviet territorial survey of Central Asia conducted in the 1920s. This was followed by a number of territorial exchanges between the two republics and, with the fall of the USSR, the existing border was largely artificial with little regard for ethnic and cultural divisions.

Andrei Grozin, of the Russian Institute for the Countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), said that Uzbekistan, in an effort to establish a pole position amongst the Central Asian states, had adopted an aggressive expansionist policy - a factor "which is hardly conducive to political and economic integration across the region".

It is probable that Tashkent will ultimately attempt to challenge the old Soviet demarcations on legal grounds and call for a review of existing national boundaries.

There are signs that the Uzbek public wholeheartedly supports this position. According to Sergei Alarin, a correspondent for the Novoye Pokolenie (New Generation) newspaper, Uzbek university lecturers teach their students that the Makhtaral, Saryagash, Tolebi, Turkestan and Sairan regions of South Kazakstan are historically Uzbek territories and should be returned to the Uzbek people.

The issue of border security is particularly sensitive. Kazak political analysts point out that there are few threats to Uzbek national security while Tashkent's foreign policies betray a distinctly totalitarian flavour.

And, while Kazak citizens complain of the heavy-handed tactics of the Uzbek border guards, it is clear that Astana can barely maintain minimum standards of security along the frontier, with the few existing border posts desperately short of manpower and resources.

Uzbekistan has largely ignored the protests and appeals made by the Kazak foreign ministry and other official bodies over recent incidents on the border. However, in an effort to smooth relations with its neighbour, Tashkent has entered into negotiations with the Kazak authorities over continued demarcation plans.

The first round of talks was held in Tashkent last February with a second session in May. A framework for future negotiations has already been established and a 194 km stretch of the disputed frontier has been agreed.

Delegates have decided that the border will be drawn from the point where Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan meet, at the Maidantal River gorge, in the Western Tyan Shan mountains.

However, according to Major General Husain Berkaliev, head of the frontier service for the Kazak National Security Committee, the delegates' work is unlikely to be completed before 2008.

And, given this lengthy time-frame and the contradictory nature of Kazak-Uzbek relations, it is reasonable to expect tensions on the border to remain high for the foreseeable future.

Andrei Chebotarev is an analyst with the Agency for Political Research in Almaty