An April 19 incident involving Uzbek border guards and a Kazakh national revealed the ongoing cross-border tensions and geopolitical rivalry between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Reports in the media of both countries tended to overemphasize the significance of the incident, which has been taken up at the highest diplomatic levels. This follows the recent success of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visit to Uzbekistan, which raised hopes for greater practical security cooperation between the two countries.
Four Uzbek border guards allegedly breached regulations and illegally entered southern Saryaghash District. Their purpose was to carry out a search in the village of Kuanshy on the pretext of looking for a stolen fence. Failing to ascertain any information from locals, they roughed up a Kazakh, Bauyrzhan Akhmetov, who was herding cattle outside the village. The border guards then shot at locals attempting to rescue Akhmetov, before removing their suspect. He was later treated in a hospital in Tashkent for a serious head injury that left him in “grave condition” (Kazakh TV First Channel, Astana, April 26).
The backlash from this incident was immediate. Outraged members of Kazakhstan’s parliament demanded that the prime minister and other government officials attend a joint session of parliament in order to clarify the situation. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry considered the detention of a Kazakh citizen by Uzbek border guards to be entirely unjust and illegal. Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashikbayev explained that the Uzbek border guards’ actions “were gross violations of the norms of international law and contrary to the friendly relations between the two countries, which found further confirmation during President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visit to Tashkent.” As the situation escalated, with Turdiqul Botayorov, the Uzbek ambassador, was summoned to the Kazakh Foreign Ministry, the Uzbek media suggested that the border guards had acted properly, even alleging that they had confiscated ammunition from Akhmetov.
Nevertheless, the authorities in Astana were keen to stress the need for cross-border cooperation and looked to Tashkent for signs of a conciliatory approach. On April 25 Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev emphasized the unacceptable nature of the incident and reminded Tashkent of its legal obligations, while stressing the need for more border-security cooperation between the two countries. Tokayev wants to see real interaction established between the border services of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (Interfax-Kazakhstan, April 24; Kazakhstan Today News Agency, April 26).
Progress on border-security cooperation has moved forward, at least on paper, with an April 28 agreement on the activities of the checkpoints along the shared border. According to Kazakhstan’s Finance Ministry’s customs control committee, officials agreed on the list of checkpoints, their status, and working hours. The border issue also lies at the heart of joint efforts to combat drug trafficking. Senior officials of the Kazakh National Security Committee and the Uzbek National Security Service approved a joint action plan to fight drug trafficking. Nurgali Bilisbekov, head of the NSC’s economic security directorate, said that experts from Kazakh and Uzbek intelligence services had met in Shymkent (South Kazakhstan Region) on April 27 to formulate joint measures to fight international drug trafficking. The meeting resulted in a joint action plan that includes practical steps aimed at coordinating efforts and curbing drug-trafficking groups, and exchanging operational and analytical intelligence related to the activities of drug-smuggling syndicates.
The agreement itself was based on the implementation of agreements reached between the security services of four Central Asian countries in March 2004, the quadripartite agreement between the special services of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. “Cooperation with Uzbekistan is of special importance to us, [because] a shift from main drug trafficking through the Tajik-Kyrgyz-Russian direction to transporting large batches of drugs through Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan is now being observed. We have to cooperate closely in order to tackle this” Bilisbekov explained (Gazeta.kz, April 29).
Both governments appear ready to signal positive intentions, offering hope of closer security cooperation, and show willingness to promote interagency coordination in key areas. Largely, this sense of cooperation exists at the bilateral political level, which tends to engender paper agreements that can be much more difficult to implement in reality. Local hostilities and interstate rivalry remain endemic features of the troubled and at times tense relations between Astana and Tashkent. The border incident exposed the underlying tensions between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at the local and political levels. Official Tashkent, when it chooses to take seriously the implications of such clashes, regards border issues as a by-product of rogue elements within its border service. Kazakh officials report that the frequency of this type of incident shows little sign of abating; more than 28 clashes have occurred since the start of the year, around 10 were violent. The seriousness of the security situation facing both countries and the condition of their respective border services is such that it will take more than paper agreements to show genuine progress. In order to make workable such cooperative documents, root and branch security sector reform will be needed in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: both sides are currently far from achieving this goal.