It is widely accepted that national borders are a fundamental factor in determining the degree of tension or cooperation in relations between states and within a region as a whole (Moraczewka, 2010). At present, Central Asia faces significant border issues because, unlike its external borders, the process of demarcation of the borders within the region, predominantly in the Fergana Valley, is yet to be completed (Tashtemkhanova et al., 2015). Thousands of kilometers of borders still in dispute serve as a stumbling block for intra-regional cooperation and feed into tensions arising from time to time. After achieving independence the former Soviet Central Asian republics immediately confronted the problem of settling their new (formerly internal) but ill-defined state borders that had been artificially drawn during the Soviet Union with little consideration paid to ethnic or geographical features of the area (International Crisis Group, 2002). Over the last two decades, this has led to the eruption of many territorial disputes between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Subsequent interstate and social tensions have endangered security and stability not only in the Fergana Valley but the Central Asian region as a whole. However, following the rise of Shavkat Mirziyoyev to power in Uzbekistan, the country that has an upper hand in many of these territorial disputes, some positive steps can be observed. Therefore, it is worth reviewing the current state of affairs with respect to the existing territorial and border disputes in Central Asia while also considering recent developments in this area.
It should be underscored from the outset that, unlike the complicated situation among the countries sharing the Fergana Valley, two of the five Central Asian states, namely Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, have largely avoided the problems associated with territorial disputes and solved the basic problem of delimitation of their respective overland borders with other Central Asian neighbors, thus fully completing their legal registration. Turkmenistan signed the corresponding agreements with Uzbekistan (September 2000) and Kazakhstan (July 2001), while Kazakhstan settled this issue by signing the agreements with Uzbekistan (September 2002), Kyrgyzstan (December 2001) and Turkmenistan (July 2001). On November 10, 2017, on the sidelines of the Samarkand meeting of the Central Asian foreign ministers, the treaty on the junction points of the border between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was signed. In fact, according to Kazakh Minister of Foreign Affairs Kairat Abdrakhmanov, the document finalizes the border legalization process among these three states (Tengrinews, 2017). It is worth noting that previously Kazakhstan signed similar junction point agreements with China and Kyrgyzstan (1999), and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (2001).
At the same time, a very different picture can be observed in the Fergana Valley where the territories of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan do not only meet, but are closely intermingled. The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 fragmented the Fergana Valley with the three states having claims to each other’s territory. The border settlement negotiations have stalled for years due to the conflicting Soviet-time maps showing different frontiers of the Fergana Valley in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, thus allowing each country to use the preferred maps for their own advantage (Borthakur, 2017). As a result, the borders are delimited and demarcated only partially, and there exist a number of disputed territories between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The situation is aggravated with the presence of eight enclaves: six of them are located in Kyrgyzstan (four Uzbek exclaves and two Tajik exclaves), and two are in Uzbekistan (one Kyrgyz exclave and one Tajik exclave) where approximately 100 thousand people live on the foreign side of the border (Tashtemkhanova et al., 2017). Therefore, unless these disputed parts are properly agreed, delimited and demarcated, there will be a constant threat to the region’s stability and security. Although the three states share a common understanding that border issues must be settled, the combination of interlinked factors – complex landscape, challenges associated with the use of resources, nationalist sentiments of border communities and the lack of political will – have stalled the process for more than two decades.
In contrast, 2017 has seen a major breakthrough with a number of agreements reached and negotiations renewed. Perhaps the most notable progress has been made in demarcating Uzbekistan’s border with Kyrgyzstan as evident from the agreement on the border delimitation signed between Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev and former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in Tashkent, in October 2017, settling 1,170 out of 1,280 kilometers of the common border. This was a culmination of the efforts undertaken by the governments of both states since mid-September 2016, with the Uzbek and Kyrgyz delegations meeting regularly to study the disputed border areas. Experts argue that more progress has been achieved in solving the border issues between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over this period than it had been made in the previous 15 years (Pannier, 2017). However, the remaining parts of the border involving the five ethnic exclaves in the Fergana Valley are expected to be much harder to resolve despite the strong commitments observed in both capitals. These include the Uzbek exclaves of Sokh, Shohimardan, Jani-Ayil, and Chon in Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz exclave of Barak in Uzbekistan, along with other 36 disputed sectors along the border.
Perhaps the main factor behind the recent rapprochement has been the ability of the two leaders to find a common language with each other. It is possible that mutual ties were established a decade ago when Mirziyoyev and Atambayev served as the prime ministers of their respective states. Initially, they aimed to resolve the remaining problematic sections of the border before December 1, 2017, when Atambayev’s term in office came to an end. However, this has not been achieved as the negotiations are still going on, with the latest meeting of the working group taking place on January 21, 2018, in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. In general, there are two proposed solutions to the problem – exchanging territories or creating land corridors going from the mother territories to the exclaves. However, at the heart of the problem lies the feeling of people living in these contested areas. One of the most viable solutions seems to be the land swaps, i.e. trading the territory of the enclaves in exchange for lands of similar sizes somewhere along the border, but it is doubtful that residents of the exchanged lands would be willing to become citizens of the new country they suddenly find themselves living in (Baumgartner, 2017). One should also not forget the deep-seated fear of both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks towards each other in the aftermath of the tragic 2010 Osh events when approximately 400 Uzbeks were killed during the interethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan. An alternative option of moving out is also tricky since people have lived in these enclaves for generations, and abandoning graves of their buried ancestors and relatives is culturally unacceptable for them (Baizakova, 2017). Moreover, the relocation of the densely populated exclaves of Sokh (50,000 people) and Shohimardon (about 5,000 people) would require substantial public spending. Considering this, it seems that the settlement of the remaining border will require no less time and efforts than removing all the previous barriers combined.
Despite the fact that the relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been the most problematic in Central Asia, with the sides disagreeing on practically all issues of mutual concern, only 93 out of 1,332 kilometers of the Uzbek-Tajik border remain in dispute. 84% of the shared border was settled in 2002 when the relevant agreement on the border delimitation was signed and ratified by the parliaments of both states. However, the settlement of the remaining section of the border had been stalled until recently. On May 30-31, 2017, the intergovernmental commission on delimitation and demarcation of the state borders held its first session in almost five years in Dushanbe. A new round of talks took place during the January 2018 visit by Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulla Aripov to Tajikistan. Aripov and his Tajik counterpart Qohir Rasulzoda chaired the Tajik-Uzbek intergovernmental commissions for trade and economic cooperation, as well as the talks on the border delimitation and demarcation that produced a major breakthrough. As a result of the negotiations, the parties managed to reach a compromise on the disputed Farkhod hydropower station built in the Soviet time on the border area between the two countries. The dam and its facilities have been contested territories since independence. Under the deal, the Tajik side will own the land on which the facility is located, while the station with its equipment and infrastructure will remain the property of the Uzbek side.
Some believe that this breakthrough marks the approaching progress in the full-scale resolution of the border issues. According to Rajabboy Ahmadzoda, the Head of the State Committee for Land Management and Geodesy of Tajikistan, “the Tajik-Uzbek border remains controversial [but] this dispute will be resolved in the near future” (Azernews, 2018). In this regard, it is expected that the upcoming visit of President Mirziyoyev to Tajikistan, scheduled to take place in the spring of 2018, will produce more tangible outcomes.
The Kyrgyz-Tajik border is one of the most complex borders in the region due to its mountainous landscape and the presence of the Tajik exclaves Varukh and Kairgach inside Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province. The bulk of the 970-kilometer long Kyrgyz-Tajik border remains unsettled, with 459 kilometers in the densely populated Fergana Valley being subject to mutual claims, including 58 contested sections. This has often led to violent incidents in the border areas. In 2000, the two countries established the intergovernmental commission on delimitation and demarcation issues. In November 2015, the Kyrgyz-Tajik commission came to consensus on 520 kilometers of the border, mainly in the uncontested mountainous areas. During the recent February 2018 visit by President of Kyrgyzstan Sooronbai Jeenbekov to Tajikistan, there was a hope that the leaders would sign an agreement on the agreed sections of the border. However, this did not happen as the document is still under consideration of the Tajik authorities. This in general reflects the complexity and sensitivity of the subject. There is a lack of political will from both sides, and in the absence of straightforward solutions any settlement would require making compromises that would almost certainly damage the interests of the border communities that share the same water sources, pastures, roads, and other facilities, thus increasing the risk of protests and clashes. For instance, there exists a long record of disputes between the local Kyrgyz community and the Tajik residents of the Varukh exclave over access to water and land, as well as the imposition of strict border control by the Kyrgyz side. Consequently, hostile attitude and general mistrust of the communities towards each other have emerged preventing the sides to finally reach a mutually satisfactory settlement.
What is interesting to note here is that both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). From the purely legal perspective, the unresolved border issues between Bishkek and Dushanbe present a potential threat to the organization as there is no definite clause or article in the treaty that envisages a plan of action in the case of a conflict between its members (Baizakova, 2017). The problem of unsettled borders also poses a regional security risk since it feeds into the increasing drug trafficking from Afghanistan northward through the porous territories of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. According to the statistics, Afghanistan is responsible for more than 90% of the world’s illicit opium and heroin production, and 15% to 20% of drugs produced in Afghanistan are smuggled through the territory of Central Asia to Russia, Eastern Europe, and China (Institute for the Study of War, n.d.).
In conclusion, the contentious border settlement issues continue to serve as a factor that blocks intra-regional cooperation in Central Asia, while fueling intergovernmental tensions and ethnic confrontations. Many view this as a legacy of the Soviet Union’s planners who while establishing administrative boundaries between the republics disregarded geographic and ethnic factors. According to Nick Megoran, when Soviet policymakers drew the demarcation lines they could not imagine that these lines would one day become real interstate borders (Belafatti, 2016). As a result, the territorial issues between the post-Soviet Central Asian states have nearly opened the Pandora box. Although some predicted violent reshaping of these borders, it has not occurred so far as the states have largely preferred to accept the old Soviet administrative boundaries (Gavrills, 2017). All in all, it seems that the time has finally come for the resolution of the border issues, which would pave the way for strengthening regional security, facilitating efforts in combating drug trafficking and religious extremism, while also boosting intra-regional trade that long suffered from the economic blockades, closed borders and disrupted communication links. Therefore, there is a hope that recent positive developments in the region, most importantly the change in Uzbekistan’s policy towards its neighbors, would provide a fresh impetus for reaching a final solution to the border disputes in the Fergana Valley.
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Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Abulkhairkhan Zhunisbek is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He graduated from Abylai Khan Kazakh University of International Relations and World Languages with a Bachelor in International Relations. He obtained his master’s degree in Diplomatic Studies at the University of Oxford through the Bolashak scholarship. His thesis “ Political Economy of Oil: the case of Kazakhstan” received distinction mark. Prior to joining the ERI, he worked for governmental and international organizations.