Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 16

By Farkhod Tolipov

Any border is arbitrary to a degree, but the laying down of borders in Central Asia has been particularly troublesome. In the 1920s and 1930s the region was carved up into five republics, part of an effort to demarcate the republics along ethnic lines. This approach contrasted with the territorial divisions that had separated the earlier political entities in the region. Recent attempts to delimit the region’s borders risk adding another layer of arbitrariness, differing little either in character or in content from what has gone before.

In the Soviet era, the administrative borders did not in practice violate the traditional (cross-border) way of life of the many people resident in the border zones. By contrast, the current efforts to establish inter-state borders threaten such contacts both de jure and de facto.

Borders do not so much solve existing problems as create new ones. What is a border, what is it for, and for whom or against whom is it created? Liberal thinkers see a society’s borders as an administrative convenience, without any particular moral significance or moral justification. According to communitarian thinkers, on the other hand, borders are needed to safeguard national identity and cultural diversity, making them a good thing per se. Liberals proceed from the obligation to protect individuals’ rights to freedom of movement, and look toward the ideal of a “world without frontiers.” Conversely, communitarians assume the existence of fundamental differences between nations, in their character as communities and in their attributes (for example, living standards and culture). The ideal approach would be to combine these two elements. The liberal principle of free movement should be harmonized with the communitarian principle of looking after “one’s own” ethno-national community.


Nationalism, as the “will of the majority,” is fundamentally democratic by definition. The situation is complicated in Central Asia by the fact that the process of post-Soviet national self-determination has taken hold in not only the so-called titular nations within each of the Central Asian countries, but also among the so-called national minorities, most of which are the diasporas of neighboring nations. They have become diasporas largely because of the artificial and arbitrary partition of the region into five republics.

Thus, Uzbeks make up 24.4 percent of the population in Tajikistan; 13.8 percent in Kyrgyzstan; 9 percent in Turkmenistan; and 2.5 percent in Kazakhstan. There are major Kazakh settlements in the Tashkent and Dzhizak oblasts of Uzbekistan, Turkmen settlements in Khorezm oblast and so on. It is also odd, for example, that the territory of Kyrgyzstan contains enclaves such as Sokh and Shakhimardan, which come under Uzbekistan’s sovereignty, and Vorukh, which belongs to Tajikistan.

Border issues not only give rise not only to natural questions of historical justice, but also provide scope for tendentious mobilization by nationalists, particularly when it comes to calling for changes in existing borders. But searching for the so-called primordial territories of each of the region’s five countries is not only academically irrelevant, but also politically provocative. Such agitation provides a stimulus to those who seek to exploit the border issues, in pursuit of goals ranging from the political to terrorist and purely criminal. This prompts the Central Asian governments, in response, to take steps to tighten their national security.

This puts a new spin on the familiar security dilemma. The pursuit of a national idea that is democratic by nature is inevitably accompanied by a national security policy that is undemocratic in character.

On the other hand, the process of national self-determination, in its traditional sense, is doomed to remain incomplete. Just as the region’s division into five parts within the borders of the current republics was arbitrary and artificial, so, too, any effort to conclude the process of building nation-states that is based purely on an idealization of the traditional, outmoded concepts of nationhood, state and democracy will be ineffective.

Democratization is not only an internal affair for the state, as it was traditionally imagined to be, but is also an element of foreign policy. Neither democratization nor border-drawing can succeed unless they are embedded in a broader process of institution building at the regional level. It is important to realize that two parallel processes are at work in Central Asia: State formation and regional integration. The agents of integration–the states–are both taking shape and integrating with each other at the same time.


Although some sort of national self-identification has been a constant factor in Central Asia, historically there was always some sort of clear supra-national, integrationist polity: The empires of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, the Bukhara Emirate, the Khanates of Kokand and Khiva, Turan, Turkestan, the Imperial Russia of the Tsars, the USSR. Now we have various post-Soviet constructs such as the Central Asian Economic Union and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, as well as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) itself.

Waves of integrationism and de-integrationism roll on, one after the other, leaving a complex pattern of ethnic, social and political identities in their wake, and making it hard to draw the line between national and regional considerations.

As a result of the imposition of Western style borders on Central Asia’s quasi-polity, there are hundreds of disputed territories across the region’s states. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people living in regions close to the inter-state borders lead a cross-border way of life.

On gaining their independence, the Central Asian states officially adopted the former Soviet administrative inter-republic borders as their inter-state borders. The principles of the inviolability of existing borders and respect for each other’s territorial integrity are enshrined in the founding Accord of the Commonwealth of Independent States signed on October 8, 1991.

In line with bilateral treaties on eternal friendship and also as signatory states to the Final Act of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Central Asian states have affirmed their resolve to energetically develop relations based on respect for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of borders, as well as on principles of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit.

In September 2000, during a visit by President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan to Ashgabat, documents were signed on the delimitation of borders between the two states. During Karimov’s visit to Astana in September 2002, the legal recognition of the Uzbek-Kazakh border was effectively completed. Kazakhstan had already likewise completed the delimitation of its inter-state borders with both Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. But further work must still be done on the definition of borders between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

But for all their talk of building nation-states, the countries of Central Asia are still interdependent parts of a single region. As we see, the border problem seems to stand between the sovereignty and the integration of the Central Asian countries. But between sovereignty and integration there is also another reality–the interdependence of these countries.

Future policy must be based on new principles: 1) The optimization of the cross-border security regime, based on a common system of regional security; 2) the potential repositioning of borders, as dictated by the expediency of recognizing the mobile nature of the lives (labor and lifestyle) of populations in the border regions; 3) openness of, and access to, enclaves and exclaves, taking into account the rights of the populations of those territories that find themselves geographically detached from their parent state, though still a legal part of it; 4) mutual concessions flowing logically from the preceding principles as a mutual expression of good will and trust.


The border issue is a challenge for both the strongest and the weakest states of Central Asia. The states should stop approaching borders as a purely territorial phenomenon that expresses national sovereignty and identity, and think about ways to transcend borders by embedding them in the social, political and economic processes that flow beside and across them. Perhaps the Central Asian states will then succeed in finding new and more effective solutions and a new model of demarcation.

Farkhod Tolipov has a Ph.D. in political science and is a senior lecturer at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.