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Central Asia: Border Disputes and Conflict Potential
Central Asia: Border Disputes and Conflict Potential
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?
What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?

Central Asia: Border Disputes and Conflict Potential

For the past decade Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have all been involved in high stakes negotiations to define their respective borders. Strong-arm politics, economic pressures, shadowy backroom deals, nationalist sentiments, public dissatisfaction and an environment of mutual mistrust have marked this process.

Executive Summary

For the past decade Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have all been involved in high stakes negotiations to define their respective borders. Strong-arm politics, economic pressures, shadowy backroom deals, nationalist sentiments, public dissatisfaction and an environment of mutual mistrust have marked this process. The resolution of border issues peacefully and transparently would have a positive impact on regional security, economic cooperation, ethnic relations and efforts to combat drug trafficking and religious extremism. But progress has been slow, and no immediate breakthrough can be seen in an all too often antagonistic process that is defining the new map of Central Asia.

Independence for the Central Asian states reopened a Pandora’s box of border disputes. Many of the current difficulties can be traced directly back to a difficult Soviet legacy. Moscow established administrative borders of its Central Asian republics in the mid-1920s, which followed neither natural geographic boundaries nor strict ethnic lines. Soviet planners often avoided drawing more homogeneous or compact republics for fear they would fuel separatism. Further, given the highly centralised nature of Soviet planning, economic and transportation links were designed to cross republic borders freely. Goods flowed largely unimpeded across these internal borders, and people would notice little more than a plaque or a small police outpost as they moved between republics.

Compounding the current difficulties, the borders were redrawn on numerous occasions, and republics were permitted to secure long-term leases of territory from other republics. In a number of cases, enclaves – isolated islands of territory within another republic – were created.

All these factors combined to create a complex stew of territorial claims and counterclaims once the Central Asian republics became independent states. Borders that were suddenly international quickly took on major significance. Long-standing industrial and transportation links were disrupted. Control of territory meant control of resources and improved strategic positions. Ethnic populations that had long enjoyed access to friends and family just across borders were now isolated and often faced visa requirements and other access difficulties.  Much of the population views these new restrictions with hostility and has felt the disruption in traditional patterns of commerce and society acutely.

Resolving these lingering and often quite substantial border disputes has become critical. Regional relations have often been uneasy for a variety of reasons, and tensions over borders have only made cooperation in other areas, such as trade, more daunting. At the same time, border disputes have also become important domestic political issues. Concessions made in border negotiations can be rich fodder for political oppositions (in those Central Asian countries where opposition groups are allowed to operate), and this has served to further constrain the latitude of governments to compromise.

The resolution of territorial disputes is obviously emotional and goes directly to each country’s definition of national interests. No nation wants to make territorial concessions. Nonetheless, the failure to resolve border issues prevents neighbours from normalising relations and dealing with pressing social and economic issues. Thus it is important that any territorial differences be resolved on a mutually acceptable basis in accordance with the standards of international law and practice.

The most complicated border negotiations involve the Ferghana Valley where a myriad of enclaves exist, and all three countries which share it — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — have both historical claims to each other’s territory and economic interests in the transport routes, rivers, reservoirs, and industries. Negotiations over border demarcation in the valley have been charged with tension and have stalled over scores of disputed points. While talks continue with a broad understanding that border issues must be settled, there is little likelihood of a final breakthrough any time soon.

Even where demarcation has been agreed, border crossings are difficult throughout the region, slowing regional trade and causing tension. Demands for visas, often only available in capitals and at a high price for local people, have made freedom of movement increasingly difficult. Customs officers and border forces are often poorly trained and frequently depend on corruption for their income.  Harassment and extortion of travellers and traders has become part of everyday reality in border regions. As cross-border travel becomes more difficult, interaction between populations that once shared many aspects of a common culture and way of life is becoming much less frequent. As new lines are drawn on the map, so new borders and new stereotypes are being created in people’s minds.

Limiting cross-border movement has often been done in the name of security, yet few border services are sufficiently proficient to prevent determined narcotics traffickers or terrorists from crossing frontiers. And the means used to secure borders have had a directly negative impact on the lives of local people. There are regular reports of deaths in unmarked minefields, shootings of villagers who have strayed into foreign territory, and huge social and economic costs from the destruction of bridges and other cross-border transport infrastructure.

All the countries in the region are in economic crisis and have a wide array of social problems. Political opposition has become radicalised in some areas. In these circumstances, tension over borders is only one further destabilising issue in a difficult political and security environment. Resolving these issues will require great persistence, difficult compromises, intensive international engagement and genuine creativity.

Osh/Brussels 4 April 2002

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?

Originally published in Eurasianet

Without much ado, Kazakhstan adopted a new military doctrine in September, replacing a 2011 document that had become dated. The new document states that Kazakhstan does not have enemies. Yet, Astana seems alarmed enough by Russia’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine since 2014 to have produced a doctrine that is an obvious reaction to Moscow’s hybrid warfare tactics, which include cyber-disruption and propaganda.

Kazakhstan is not alone in sensing that it now lives in a rapidly changing security environment that demands new policies. Belarus, another neighbor of Russia, introduced a new military doctrine in July 2016. But while Belarus made explicit that it is reacting to Ukraine’s fight against Russian-backed separatists and Moscow’s use of hybrid warfare, Kazakhstani authorities have not commented publicly on changes to their military doctrine.

Still, similarities between the new Kazakhstani and Belarussian doctrines abound, and it is not difficult to see the origin of  Astana’s threat assessment. Kazakhstan shares a 7,500-kilometer land border with Russia and northern Kazakhstan is home to a significant Russian minority with deep roots in the region. Though their numbers are dwindling, Russians still account for roughly 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s population. Much to Astana’s irritation, the area is romanticized by some Russian politicians as still being Russian territory. In January 2017, a State Duma deputy, Pavel Shperov, suggested the Kazakhstani-Russian border was not a permanent fixture and that Kazakhstani territory was merely on loan to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners. Balancing these relationships allow it to demonstrate that it has the political clout to act more independently of Russia than other Central Asian states.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners.

Still, Astana and Moscow remain very close allies, bound by economic ties through the Eurasian Economic Union and militarily through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The CSTO functions as much as a vehicle for Russia’s bilateral security agendas with fellow member states as it does as collective entity. As an organization, it has also redefined what it sees as security threats -- a process that began after the pro-democracy “color” revolutions in Georgia, 2003, Ukraine, 2004, and Kyrgyzstan, 2005. Analysis and recommendations from the CSTO played a pivotal role in shaping Russia’s own military doctrine of 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.

The alleged basis of Russia’s actions in Ukraine is a self-proclaimed doctrine under which Moscow can act as the protector of the rights of Russians experiencing alleged discrimination wherever they may be. The circumstances that prevailed in Ukraine prior to the start of Russian meddling in 2014 are not evident in present-day Kazakhstan. Russia’s concern that Ukraine was drifting toward the EU’s orbit was an underlying motivation for its actions in 2014. There is no reason for Moscow to worry that Astana is tilting toward the EU these days. Meanwhile, the Russian minority in Kazakhstan experiences little or no discrimination.

Just because the circumstances are different, doesn’t mean Kazakhstan isn’t vulnerable. Astana should recognize that national and ethnic unity since independence in 1991 is a thin construction, far too dependent on fealty to President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Alongside the outward-looking nature of Kazakhstan’s 2017 military doctrine, there is sharp focus on internal threats. Nazarbayev in the past three years has undertaken measures to strengthen the government, bolster the economy and to resist firmly any speculation that a Ukrainian scenario could happen in Kazakhstan. When citizens protested against plans to lease farm land to Chinese investors in May 2016, Nazarbayev issued a stark rebuke, using Ukraine as an example of what can go wrong if protests get out of hand.

Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Nationalism is growing nonetheless. It not only showed itself during the May 2016 land protests, but also in long-term trends such as renaming previously Russian-language place names to Kazakh. Some Russian politicians see Kazakhstan’s move to Latinize the Kazakh alphabet, which is currently written in Cyrillic, as an anti-Russian move. It is indeed a highly symbolic gesture, one that a Western diplomat described as an act of defiance and post-Soviet national identity-building.

The Russian language has equal status in Kazakhstan, but Kazakh is ascendant, and knowledge of it is required for government jobs. It’s also worth noting that not one of Kazakhstan's ministers has an ethnic Russian background.

Astana has sought to manage its relationship with Moscow as an equal partnership. Its success in doing so is largely attributable to Nazarbayev, who has led Kazakhstan since independence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin was a KGB functionarynt, while Nazarbayev was the already powerful and ambitious First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. With Nazarbayev turning 78 years old next year, a transition in the vast but sparsely populated Central Asian state is inevitable. The crisis in Ukraine has brought into focus the risks of any sort of transition or internal instability in Russia’s neighborhood.

As Nazarbayev ages, political transition is inevitable and unless handled smoothly that transition could be destabilizing. The Kremlin’s military doctrine and its foreign policies are premised on Russia exerting itself as a great power with historical privileges. Kazakhstan understands that in the long-term it could be vulnerable to Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. Its new military doctrine addresses that external risk in a clear-headed and robust manner. But when it comes to the domestic challenges that could provide the very opening required for an assertive foreign power to gain a foothold, Kazakhstan still appears to be sleepwalking.