Nearly 30 years after the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), many former Soviet states are still struggling to deal with the delimitation and demarcation of their borders. In the cases involving Armenia and Azerbaijan or Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (see EDM, January 28), in particular, this issue has involved regular and often-large scale ethno-national violence. Yet, most of these unresolved border struggles have taken place without much attention from Moscow or the West. Collectively, those conflicts highlight a general failure by all sides and outside observers to appreciate just how difficult this process has been due to the nature of these young republics’ Soviet inheritance. Even if all parties to any such border disagreement are committed to avoiding conflict and finding a resolution, working through these issues will continue to be difficult.
In large part, the pattern of border disputes across the post-Soviet space reflects three widely held views, all of which are wrong. First, many in Moscow and even more in the West have forgotten how often republic borders were changed throughout the course of Soviet history. They were shifted a minimum of 200 times, sometimes involving large territories (such as the shift of Karakalpakistan from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to Uzbekistan), often angering those who lost control of those lands and whetting the appetite of the winners for even more (Paul Goble, “Can Republic Borders Be Changed?” RFE/RL Report on the USSR, September 28, 1990).
Second , in Soviet times these were internal administrative lines rather than state borders, meaning the authorities routinely ignored local preferences in decisions about where to locate businesses or even entire cities. These changes left many people living in one republic, but working in another. As long as these were administrative borders, such policies had little impact on their lives. Once these borders were reidentified as international state borders, however, the situation changed radically, especially in places like the Fergana Valley, in Central Asia, where people had been used to moving freely between one republic and another.
And third, in many places, members of one ethnic group lived compactly in another republic, which became another country. In Soviet times, these exclaves were administered typically without difficulties by the republic of their titular nationality. But after 1991, they often became isolated on the “wrong” side of an inter-state border. That problem notably lies behind much of the violence witnessed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two countries with the largest number of such mutual exclaves (see EDM, September 13, 2016, August 1, 2019, January 28, 2020).
To address that problem, some have proposed redrawing the borders to eliminate the exclaves, often adding that this should be achieved by territorial swaps (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 21, 2019). Nevertheless, that idea has gained relatively little traction given the rising tide of nationalism in many of these countries. The local populations view any yielding of territory as a kind of betrayal—as is, indeed, the case in the Russian Federation as well. That reality is affecting even countries like Kazakhstan, which had been prepared to discuss or even agree to such swaps in the past (Ritmeurasia, March 22; Central Asia Monitor, March 11).
That said, those trends make the likely signing (in the next few months) of a border treaty between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan especially important since the process shows what can be done. And that process is quite timely because the forces of nationalism within both countries may eventually preclude an agreement if it is not reached soon.
Like most of the post-Soviet states, these two Central Asian giants ignored the border issue for most of the 1990s. Each had more pressing business in mind even though the border between them, at 2,200 kilometers, is the longest in the region. And with regard to both Karakalpakstan and the Fergana Valley, the border has been potentially explosive. Negotiations began at the state level in 2000, triggered by the fact that the border was de facto changing due to both the actions of local officials and shifts in river flows—a serious problem since, in Soviet times, republic and even external Soviet borders were typically designated not by longitude and latitude but by topographic features (Ritmeurasia, March 18).
At a bilateral summit in Astana in September 2002, the two sides not only agreed on the basic principles of demarcation and delimitation, but also on 96 percent of the total length of the border. That led to a small territorial swap that eliminated an exclave, but it did not eliminate all the problems. Indeed, it may have created both hopes and fears that more changes were ahead. In May 2004, with both sides yielding territory, border guards of the two countries only 17 kilometers from Tashkent exchanged fire. That had the effect of delaying any further progress, especially under the rule of Uzbekistan’s late president, Islam Karimov, who appeared to fear that the border issue was toxic.
Nonetheless, many Uzbekistani officials, looking at what was happening in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, felt that not addressing the border issue could entail even greater dangers. And within days of Karimov’s death in October 2016, Tashkent reopened the issue as part of his successor, Shavkat Miziyoyev’s, efforts to improve relations with Uzbekistan’s neighbors (UZ Daily, September 30, 2016). Last month, the Uzbekistani foreign ministry announced that Tashkent and Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) were completing a draft of a final border agreement that could be signed in the next few months (Tengrinews, October 1, 2016).
Since the length of the border still in dispute is small and because there has not been serious violence along it for more than 15 years, the deal will likely go through. Indeed, both sides have especially compelling reasons to reach an accord: neither wants a Kyrgyz-Tajik outcome, and both are concerned about the destabilizing consequences of the growth of majority and minority nationalisms. Tashkent has particular fears: Karakalpak nationalism has reemerged, and its leaders want their autonomy to be shifted from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan. If that movement should grow in strength, it is difficult to see how any final border deal could be reached (Qazaqtimes.com, September 14, 2017; Ratel.kz, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, September 15, 2017).