Central Asian Border Disputes Involve Fights Over Maps

By Paul Goble
Despite having been independent for more than 20 years, the countries of Central Asia still have not agreed on precisely where their borders are. At present, disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the one hand, and between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, on the other, are heating up, with negotiations not going anywhere fast. In both cases, and especially in the first, the dispute about where the exact line should pass involves a fight over just which maps from the tsarist and Soviet pasts should be accepted.
In the case of the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan dispute, the two sides, despite having held meetings every ten days on this issue for some years, cannot even agree on how much of their shared 1,378-kilometer-long border has been agreed to. Bishkek says that the two sides have agreed on 1,003 km, while Tashkent insists that the two governments have agreed on the delimitation of only 701 km (kyrtag.kg, July 14).
The situation concerning the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border is even more complicated. Kyrgyzstan’s officials say that the Tajiks are claiming 135,000 hectares of what Bishkek says are Kyrgyzstani lands, although the Kyrgyz Republic’s diplomats acknowledge that these Tajikistani claims so far have been made only “orally” and “not officially.” Nonetheless, this conflict is likely to intensify because the lands involved are in the heavily populated Ferghana Valley and not in unpopulated regions that the two sides have found it easier to reach agreement on (kyrtag.kg, July 14).
But underlying this dispute, which has already led to border clashes between the forces of the two countries over the last several years, are fights about which historical map should be considered the most authoritative. Tajikistanis consider the most authoritative maps to be the Soviet ones prepared between 1924 and 1939, as part of the territorial delimitation of the entire region and often based on tsarist military maps. The Kyrgyzstanis, in contrast, insist that the maps that should be examined to settle the dispute are those of the Soviet volumes on administrative divisions from 1958-1959 and 1989, as confirmed by the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in the latter year (centrasia.ru, July 16).
The first Soviet maps of these republics were prepared in 1924, at the end of the territorial delimitation of the region. These maps reflected Soviet needs and were largely based on the maps prepared by the tsarist military in 1896, which described the region in terms of natural features like mountains, rivers and the like. The 1924 Soviet map was modified in succeeding years as Moscow redrew the borders at the request of one or another of the governments in the region. This complex history is described by V.N. Fedchina in her classic study, “How the Map of Central Asia was Created” (in Russian, Moscow: Nauka, several editions).

On the basis of this history, Maksim Vedeneyev of the “Tsentr Asiya” news service says the Tajikistanis are in the right in their claims against Kyrgyzstan. But not surprisingly, current politics may lead to another outcome or no solution at all—at least anytime soon (centrasia.ru, July 16).