Kazakhstan’s border delimitation process has always been an issue shrouded in mystery, even for residents of the border areas. The authorities have previously accused journalists in South Kazakhstan of issuing inaccurate reports that damage relations with Uzbekistan. Therefore, journalists hungry for first-hand information were excited by an unexpected Foreign Ministry press conference on July 23.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Murat Atanov prefaced his comments on the current state of border delimitation with pointed attacks on “some policymakers” who, in his words, make groundless insinuations that the government is selling out Kazakhstan’s national interests by making territorial concessions to neighboring states. Expressing the Foreign Ministry’s official line, Atanov added that authors of such “irresponsible” statements capitalize on the difficulties of the border talks to score political points. “We cannot have what does not belong to us,” Atanov declared, alluding to 420-square kilometer patch of land ceded to China after difficult bargaining (Panorama, July 29).
The Foreign Ministry spokesman had good reason to be irritated by persistent allegations of concessions made to Russia, China, and Uzbekistan at the border talks. The Azat Party of National Patriots and other political forces have become fixated on this issue. Even Serikbolsyn Abdildin, the leader of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and an advocate of integration with Russia, lamented the loss of the Imashev gas fields in western Kazakhstan to Russia. In northern Kostanay region, the border village of Ogneupornoye was handed over to Russia in exchange for 520 hectares of arable land, based on the rationale that nearly 80% of the residents held Russian passports. The deal sparked protests from Kazakh nationalists, inflamed by unconfirmed rumors of scuffles between Kazakhs repatriated from Uzbekistan and local Russians in Kostanay region (Sayasat.kz, August 4).
The Foreign Ministry’s denial of territorial concessions to neighbor countries amid a host of contradicting facts seems to be aimed at domestic as well as international audiences. Astana hopes to ease the interethnic tension between Slavs and the indigenous population, particularly in the predominantly Russian-populated northern regions, triggered by media reports of unequal bargaining. The northern border regions are increasingly becoming the main area for resettling the growing number of ethnic Kazakhs emigrating from Uzbekistan.
Furthermore, the elimination of border disputes will help strengthen Kazakhstan’s ties to its partners in the CIS Collective Security Treatment Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Bigaly Turarbekov, an advisor to the Kazkah foreign minister, stressed the international significance of the border settlement, which, as he put it, would “contribute to confidence-building among SCO member states” (Panorama, July 29).
The pro-presidential political parties and nationalist movements remain divided over the border issue. The leader of the Civic Party, Azat Peruashev, thinks that the concessions of a few square kilometers of land are not a great loss if Kazakhstan is to gain international recognition of its borders (Novoye Pokolenie, July 29).
Despite this high-flown rhetoric, there are many hurdles and uncertainties to overcome before the border settlement is finalized. The demarcation of Kazakh-Uzbek border, according to Atanov, is expected to take at least two years. The delimitation of the border with Kyrgyzstan is vaguely postponed to the “nearest future.” Slightly more than 650 frontier markers, (of a planned 1,500 stakes) have been erected along the border with Uzbekistan. But the most difficult part of the work will undoubtedly be the evacuation of some 370 Kazakh families left on Uzbek territory after border delimitation. The government has allocated 1.5 billion tenge to resettle them in Kazakhstan. The border demarcation occurs at a time of heightening tension and mutual animosity between Astana and Tashkent, but the Kazakh Foreign Ministry sees no political ramifications from the frequent shootings on Kazakh-Uzbek border (Ekspress-K, July 23).
Kazakhstan also has uneasy relations with Russian border authorities. Russia takes measures to stem the flow of illegal migrants and drug traffickers from Afghanistan and Central Asia, but these efforts clash with its stated desire to leave the border with Kazakhstan open in line with its policy of “integration” and in defiance of internationally accepted norms of border control. Russia has been pleased by the words of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who on many occasions has assured the Russian population of his country that there would be no frontier poles along the Russian-Kazakh border and that a simple delimitation procedure would be sufficient. “We have nothing to quarrel over, that is an example of good-neighborly relations,” according to Sergei Kopeiko of the Russian Embassy in Astana (Liter, February 5). But everybody in Astana and Moscow understands very well that a poorly guarded border will cause serious security problems for both sides, and that maintaining security in this situation is nothing more than an illusion of mutual trust.
Another potential point of contention between Kazakhstan and Russia is the delimitation of the territorial waters of the Caspian Sea. Recent efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to mobilize all littoral Caspian states against terrorism may create an impression of military and political integration, but in no way will it help settle the looming territorial disputes in the Caspian region.