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Central Asia: Border Disputes and Conflict Potential


For the past decade Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have all been involved in high stakes negotiations to define their respective borders. Strong-arm politics, economic pressures, shadowy backroom deals, nationalist sentiments, public dissatisfaction and an environment of mutual mistrust have marked this process. The resolution of border issues peacefully and transparently would have a positive impact on regional security, economic cooperation, ethnic relations and efforts to combat drug trafficking and religious extremism. But progress has been slow, and no immediate breakthrough can be seen in an all too often antagonistic process that is defining the new map of Central Asia.

Independence for the Central Asian states reopened a Pandora’s box of border disputes. Many of the current difficulties can be traced directly back to a difficult Soviet legacy. Moscow established administrative borders of its Central Asian republics in the mid-1920s, which followed neither natural geographic boundaries nor strict ethnic lines. Soviet planners often avoided drawing more homogeneous or compact republics for fear they would fuel separatism. Further, given the highly centralised nature of Soviet planning, economic and transportation links were designed to cross republic borders freely. Goods flowed largely unimpeded across these internal borders, and people would notice little more than a plaque or a small police outpost as they moved between republics.

Compounding the current difficulties, the borders were redrawn on numerous occasions, and republics were permitted to secure long-term leases of territory from other republics. In a number of cases, enclaves – isolated islands of territory within another republic – were created.

All these factors combined to create a complex stew of territorial claims and counterclaims once the Central Asian republics became independent states. Borders that were suddenly international quickly took on major significance. Long-standing industrial and transportation links were disrupted. Control of territory meant control of resources and improved strategic positions. Ethnic populations that had long enjoyed access to friends and family just across borders were now isolated and often faced visa requirements and other access difficulties. Much of the population views these new restrictions with hostility and has felt the disruption in traditional patterns of commerce and society acutely.

Resolving these lingering and often quite substantial border disputes has become critical. Regional relations have often been uneasy for a variety of reasons, and tensions over borders have only made cooperation in other areas, such as trade, more daunting. At the same time, border disputes have also become important domestic political issues. Concessions made in border negotiations can be rich fodder for political oppositions (in those Central Asian countries where opposition groups are allowed to operate), and this has served to further constrain the latitude of governments to compromise.

The resolution of territorial disputes is obviously emotional and goes directly to each country’s definition of national interests. No nation wants to make territorial concessions. Nonetheless, the failure to resolve border issues prevents neighbours from normalising relations and dealing with pressing social and economic issues. Thus it is important that any territorial differences be resolved on a mutually acceptable basis in accordance with the standards of international law and practice.

The most complicated border negotiations involve the Ferghana Valley where a myriad of enclaves exist, and all three countries which share it — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — have both historical claims to each other’s territory and economic interests in the transport routes, rivers, reservoirs, and industries. Negotiations over border demarcation in the valley have been charged with tension and have stalled over scores of disputed points. While talks continue with a broad understanding that border issues must be settled, there is little likelihood of a final breakthrough any time soon.

Even where demarcation has been agreed, border crossings are difficult throughout the region, slowing regional trade and causing tension. Demands for visas, often only available in capitals and at a high price for local people, have made freedom of movement increasingly difficult. Customs officers and border forces are often poorly trained and frequently depend on corruption for their income. Harassment and extortion of travellers and traders has become part of everyday reality in border regions. As cross-border travel becomes more difficult, interaction between populations that once shared many aspects of a common culture and way of life is becoming much less frequent. As new lines are drawn on the map, so new borders and new stereotypes are being created in people’s minds.

Limiting cross-border movement has often been done in the name of security, yet few border services are sufficiently proficient to prevent determined narcotics traffickers or terrorists from crossing frontiers. And the means used to secure borders have had a directly negative impact on the lives of local people. There are regular reports of deaths in unmarked minefields, shootings of villagers who have strayed into foreign territory, and huge social and economic costs from the destruction of bridges and other cross-border transport infrastructure.

All the countries in the region are in economic crisis and have a wide array of social problems. Political opposition has become radicalised in some areas. In these circumstances, tension over borders is only one further destabilising issue in a difficult political and security environment. Resolving these issues will require great persistence, difficult compromises, intensive international engagement and genuine creativity.



1. Cease unilateral border demarcations should cease; all demarcation should take place transparently through official joint commissions, in consultation with the local population.

2. Cease the practice of mining unmarked frontiers and take steps to remove all mines from borders.

3. Simplify visa requirements and border crossing procedures, open consulates in appropriate border cities, or otherwise issue visas at border crossing points.

4. Improve training for border guards in border and visa procedures, and take stronger measures against corruption among them and customs authorities and against harassment of travellers;

5. Uzbekistan should open map archives in Tashkent as a shared resource of the successor states of the Soviet Union, and the countries in the region should encourage Russia to provide access to similar resources in Moscow.

6. Grant regional governors more latitude to deal with the social concerns of local populations in disputed border areas and encourage local authorities to allow NGOs and community groups to engage in dispute mediation and border monitoring;

7. Cease the singling out of ethnic minorities in disputed border areas for disadvantageous treatment.

8. Ratify border agreements in accordance with the legal procedures established under each country’s law; giving legislatures and the public access to relevant information so border agreements can be subjected to normal political discussion, including by opponents.


9. The OSCE should offer its services as an impartial mediator for regional border disputes, and work to educate the states on general principles of border resolution; offer training to border guards and customs officials; and coordinate other international assistance in the field.

10. In cases where border disputes represent a serious threat of conflict, the OSCE should consider establishing border monitoring missions.

11. International donors and governments should offer access to expertise and training on international law and border disputes impartially to officials of all countries in the region.

12. International projects on cross-border transport should include conditions regarding border crossing arrangements, and work should continue on introducing common tariffs and border procedures;

13. International donors should seek further development and peacebuilding projects that span borders, not only in the Ferghana Valley, but also in other complex border regions, and support NGOs that attempt alternative border resolution programs.

Osh/Brussels 4 April 2002


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