Dmitriy Trofimov, Senior research associate, Center of International Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) (Russian Federation)

Despite the urgency of outstanding ethnic/territorial and border problems in Central Asia, they were essentially pushed into the background (at least until the mid-1990s) by economic and geopolitical issues. Moreover, had the leaders of the five states in the region shown sufficient flexibility, which in fact was dictated by their national interests, the border and territorial issues could long have been history now. Regrettably, mutual claims and grievances, and the destruction potential that emerged, in fact translated those differences from latent into open, and even critical, form.


Ever since they gained their independence, the relations between these two largest Central Asian states have been extremely complicated. The relative harmony, characteristic of the early 1990s, oftentimes based on joint opposition to real or perceived reintegration pressure on the part of Moscow, is gradually giving way to growing tension. The two neighbors were ultimately divided by the disparity between the economic and political reform models that they adopted, fierce competition for foreign investment and political support, the irreconcilable regional and international ambitions of their leaders, and basically different positions toward Russia and the CIS as a whole. A strained personal relationship between I. Karimov and N. Nazarbaev, oftentimes going far beyond the bounds of protocol dictated civility also was a factor here.

The system of complementary economic ties, inherited from the former Soviet Union, far from becoming a catalyst of mutually beneficial cooperation, in fact prompted both sides to use its elements to pressure each other. The relationship between the two countries in the 1990s was marked by short-lived tactical interaction, which eventually gave way to protracted confrontation. The fairly frequent bilateral summit meetings do little to change the general picture since, contrary to international practice, in Astana’s, and especially Tashkent’s, foreign policy, this is not an indicator of the depth or stability of bilateral relations.

Despite some evidence of infringement of the rights and interests of the ethnic Kazakh community in Uzbekistan and, on the other hand, of the ethnic Uzbek community in Kazakhstan, there are no serious ethnic conflicts between the two nations. The share of these ethnic groups has remained stable ever since the Soviet era: Ethnic Kazakhs account for 4 percent to 5 percent of the Uzbek population (approximately 1.2 million) while ethnic Uzbeks constitute 2 percent of Kazakhstan’s population (more than 400,000). About 16 percent of the population of the Chimkent Region are ethnic Uzbeks while ethnic Kazakhs account for 12.4 percent of residents in the Tashkent Region and more than 26 percent in Karakalpakstan. Experts believe that, given the strained bilateral relations, these zones of concentrated settlement of the two ethnic communities could become a potential source of conflict.

Thus, the ethnically related and traditionally friendly Karakalpaks and Kazakhs, put together, constitute an absolute majority of Karakalpakstan’s population (approximately 60 percent). Furthermore, the titular ethnic group is swayed by a strong pro-Russian and pro-Kazakh mood, arising from the well-known historical circumstances: The Karakalpaks were the first ethnic group in Central Asia that asked Russia to become Russian subjects (1742). Karakalpak districts had a special status as part of both the Turkestan Governor-Generalship (1873-1917) and the Turkestan A.S.S.R. (1918-1924). Finally, from February 1925 until July 1930, Karakalpakia was part of the Kazakh A.S.S.R., and from 1930 until 1936, part of the R.S.F.S.R. It was only after repeated appeals by the Uzbek leadership at the time that the Karakalpak A.S.S.R. was placed under the jurisdiction of Uzbekistan. One outcome of Karakalpakia’s six-year status as part of Kazakhstan was the emergence of a territorial problem. This refers to 55,000 square kilometers of tribal land used by the Adai clan of the Younger Zhuz, which was transferred to Karakalpakia in 1925, following its incorporation into Kazakhstan, retaining Kazakh jurisdiction. The subsequent, and final, incorporation of that territory into Uzbekistan, even though based on appropriate resolutions of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet, was never accepted by Kazakhstan as just or legal, either then or now.

A separate issue is the Vozrozhdenie Island in the Aral Sea. Prior to 1988, it was a closed military zone, used by a special laboratory of the U.S.S.R. Defense Ministry Institute of Microbiology, which engaged in BW research. The old inter-republic border divides the island in proportion 79:21, in favor of Uzbekistan. The idea of reviewing the border line, in favor of Astana was, in 1999, actively lobbied for by two Kazakh senators: B. Kaiupov and S. Baybekov.1 True, throughout the past decade Kazakhstan has never raised the question of either Adai land or the island border line.

A rather complex situation has evolved in the South Kazakhstan Region. Ethnic Uzbeks living here (estimated at 300,000 to 350,000) control a substantial part of trade, constituting the bulk of the local Muslim clergy. Both, in theory, give Uzbekistan some leverage. Yet the potential of the local Uzbek community has yet to be tapped to the full. Moreover, whereas in the early 1990s Tashkent was working out detailed plans to exert pressure on Almaty through ethnic Uzbeks living in the south of Kazakhstan, in the last two to three years Uzbekistan, quite the contrary, adopted a pointedly non-committal position, limiting itself to sending school textbooks but invariably turning down requests by the numerous petitioners from the region’s Uzbek community (including requests of admission to the republic’s higher educational establishments).

By and large, until the second half of the 1990s, the outstanding border issue and the related set of ethnic/territorial problems served, rather, as a background than cause for addressing the sides’ economic and geopolitical tasks. Moreover, territorial and border issues were not only expressly excluded from public discussion, but were not even included (mainly at Tashkent’s bidding) in the list of matters subject to discussion in the course of closed-door expert consultations. The Kazakh side repeatedly raised the question of border delimitation. Thus, in the course of Kazakhstan Defense Minister K. Abdullaev’s visit to Uzbekistan (October 1998), it was for the first time raised on the official level. The only counter-argument from the Uzbek side was confined to statements to the effect that “we are fraternal peoples, and we should have open borders.” The thesis was not dropped until 1999, following a series of bomb attacks in Tashkent (February 1999). Nonetheless, the Uzbek leadership continued to evade a constructive discussion of the long overdue problem, either maintaining that the issue was being raised prematurely (as was the case, say, in the course of Kazakh Prime Minister N. Balgimbaev’s visit to the republic, in May 1999) or simply ignoring Astana’s queries.

Furthermore, as of the spring of 1999, Tashkent has taken a series of unilateral measures on de-facto border demarcation. Thus, in May-June 1999, an airborne battalion (250 servicemen) was redeployed to the settlement of Nazarbek (ethnic Kazakhs accounting for 90 percent of its population), in the Turkestan District of the Tashkent Region. Approximately 70 paratroopers were deployed in the ethnic Kazakh settlements of Khumsan and Tabaksay, the Bostandyk District, each. These sub-units began installing border posts and watch towers while Tashkent tractor and aircraft factories received urgent orders to produce additional watch towers and barbed wire to demarcate the border on the side of the Tashkent Region. In a less high-profile (although just as pointed) move, district authorities appropriated 75 hectares of land belonging to the Kazakh Shymkent sanitarium, located on Uzbek territory (in the Chimgan resort area).

To all appearances, it was an attempt to take preemptive action, with a view not only to closing off an easy escape route abroad for internal opposition members but also, presumably, to establishing de-facto Uzbek jurisdiction over a number of Kazakh settlements that in the 1956-1962 period were transferred under the administrative control of the Tashkent Region. This refers to the Bostandyk District that before 1956 was part of Kazakhstan’s Chimkent Region (today the Bostandyk District of the Tashkent Region) and a few adjacent settlements that as of 1962 were part of the Dzhetysay, Pakhtaral, and Kirov districts of the Kazakh S.S.R. These three districts were returned to Kazakhstan back in the 1960s, but not completely.

In a bid to take preventive measures, the Kazakh side initiated corresponding appeals by residents in the South Kazakhstan Region, enabling Astana more effectively to uphold its own interests. Thus, in July 1999, the Chimkent based Aygak daily published a collective letter from residents of the region to President N. Nazarbaev, demanding that he take urgent action to ensure the return to Kazakhstan of the Bostandyk District, which, according to the petitioners, was transferred to the Uzbek S.S.R. only temporarily—until 1991. A little later, in May 1999, citing the numerous complaints from residents in border settlements (constant, unbearable noise), Astana banned Uzbek military aircraft at the Chirchik air base from crossing Kazakh air space.2 The acute conflict situation that evolved around the air base continued until late August, when, under the impact of Batken events, the sides managed to come to terms at the working level.

In another sign of growing mistrust, in 1999, permanent border guard posts were stationed on the border. In the course of June-July, the Uzbek side installed them at seven out of nine border crossing points. In response, the Kazakh side set up border posts at two existing border crossing points: Zhybek-Zhola (Cherniaevka) and Kaplanbek (Dzhetysay).

It seems that the entire complex of outstanding border problems ultimately forced the Uzbek leadership (although with the utmost reluctance) to revise its negative position at least toward bilateral consultations: In October 1999, Tashkent decided to establish a special commission on border disputes with Astana. In a symbolic indication, in November 1999, the commander of the Kazakh border guard service was allowed (together with the Uzbek border troops commander) to make a reconnaissance overflight of the entire border line. In addition, the Kazakh side persuaded the Uzbeks to include the delimitation issue in the agenda of an upcoming (fifth) session of the Uzbek-Kazakh Cooperation Commission.

Even so, in a bid to consolidate a foothold in disputed tracts of territory and without waiting for delimitation procedure to be finalized, in early 2000, Tashkent took clearly provocative action in border areas. In particular, numbered border poles were installed on the territory of the Kazakh state farm of Bagy (Saryagash District), including nine Kazakh households, whose members were invited to acquire Uzbek citizenship. As soon as Uzbek (including Interior Ministry and Border Service) officials left Bagy, local residents removed the border marks, informing the regional authorities about the incident. That was followed by a pointed intrusion, purportedly on a survey mission, by several Uzbek armored personnel carriers into the Uzbek claimed part of the South Kazakhstan Region, as part of a training exercise by a sub-unit from the Tashkent operations command. It was not until Kazakh armor was deployed to the area that the Uzbek sub-unit was pulled back. True, given the extremely low level of combat training and military discipline of the Uzbek army, it is not ruled out that the incident came about as a result of elementary incompetence and irresponsibility.

The situation was defused followed a telephone conversation between the countries’ presidents as well as a multilateral meeting of regional authorities, a state counselor to the Uzbek president, and representatives of border guard and customs services, including an inspection of the area of the aforementioned incidents.

From February 2000 until October 2001, the Uzbek-Kazakh Delimitation Commission held several tortuous rounds of negotiations, finalizing more than 90 percent of the border (2,134 out of 2,352 kilometers). After two years of negotiations, I. Karimov went to Kazakhstan on an official visit (16-17 November, 2001), in the course of which the sides signed a border delimitation agreement. Nonetheless, the agreement did not address by far the most acute issue: the status of the former Bostandyk District of the Chimkent Region, as well as the settlements of Bagy, Turkestanets, and Arnasay. This long-standing problem is unlikely to be resolved any time soon,3 considering that there is still a large number of irritants in bilateral relations and very little trust on either side.4


Over the past decade, bilateral Kyrgyz-Tajik relations have not been marked by either particular closeness or trust—affected by long-standing ethnic/territorial conflicts against the backdrop of perennial water and land shortages, profound ethnic/psychological differences, an array of problems resulting from drug trafficking in the region, and finally, the absence of any substantial common interests in the economic sphere. Mutual alienation throughout these years has manifested itself in, among other things, the virtually complete absence of mixed marriages, de facto division of mosques into “Kyrgyz” and “Tajik” in joint settlement areas, an extremely low level of linguistic assimilation, and periodic skirmishes in border areas. It must be said, however, that the small size of ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajik communities living in contiguous areas per se5 still plays a stabilizing role, not allowing local extremists to repeat a Batken scenario (the summer of 1999).

Elements of constructive dialog arose from either multilateral coordination within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty, the Eurasian Economic Community or the Shanghai Group of Five (now Shanghai Cooperation Organization), or an anti-Uzbek mood, characteristic of both Dushanbe and Bishkek. Thus, Tashkent’s periodic blocking of its borders with neighboring countries in the Ferghana Valley brought about joint Kyrgyz-Tajik plans of building bypass transport routes, skirting Uzbek territory.6

The existing Kyrgyz-Tajik territorial and border disputes are to a very large extent a factor of administrative/territorial division in Soviet times. Even so, whereas in the majority of other cases, the Soviet leadership proceeded from the generally understandable considerations of economic or political expediency, the transfer to Tajikistan of areas with concentrated Kyrgyz settlements (Dzhirgatal District, east Pamir) did not fit into that logic. The areas in question were high-mountain pastures traditionally used by Kyrgyz nomads that were unfit for habitation by Tajik crop farmers.

Nonetheless, the Batken District (since 1999, Batken Region), where three Tajik villages—Vorukh, Chorkukh, and Surkh—wedge into Kyrgyz territory, in the form of small enclaves, is still the main conflict zone. At least until 1999, Batken did not have its own “passport” (that is to say, a map, a list of built-up areas, and a description of the ethnic and social composition of its residents), which prevented an accurate demarcation of territory and, therefore, border delimitation. Furthermore, the road passing through the Tajik enclave of Vorukh is the only transport link between the Lyaylyak District, neighboring Batken, and the rest of the country. In addition, residents of the Vorukh village regularly close off the road with boulders, thus blocking transit, resulting in recurring ethnic clashes. Until 1999, the situation was aggravated by the arbitrariness of Tajik police, which were outside Kyrgyz control. Tajik police officers in the Batken District felt completely at home, conducting searches, inspections and even seizures of property at their own discretion while Kyrgyz police oftentimes could not even officially register those violations since they had neither the equipment nor fuel to go to the scene of an incident. It was not until after the 1999-2000 events that Bishkek managed partially to place the situation in Batken under control, restoring several checkpoints on the border with Tajikistan.

Bishkek’s attempts, in 1995-1996, to open an official, top-level dialog on delimitation of the old inter-republic border were effectively blocked by E. Rakhmonov. Today territorial/border disputes do not lead to open confrontation, although they have yet to be resolved conclusively.7 Border delimitation is hindered by, above all, the Tajik side, which hopes that the Kyrgyz leadership, concerned by a weakening of the central authority in the republic’s traditionally separatist minded southern regions, will in the end have to make concessions. Regional drug barons, interested in a continuing destabilization and the absence of effective control over drug trafficking routes (including Batken) are another negative factor.

Nonetheless, hopefully, as central authority strengthens in Tajikistan, Dushanbe will be able to reach a compromise with Bishkek. Russian mediation as well as the negotiating process within the SCO framework could play a positive role here.8


Relations between these countries, ever since they gained independence, have been plagued by outstanding ethnic/political conflicts, and incompatible nation-building models and foreign policy orientation. Another important factor is Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on stable natural gas supplies from Uzbekistan, which has often used the latter as an instrument of pressure on its neighbors. Up until 1997 neither Tashkent nor Bishkek seriously considered the possibility, by way of retaliation, of stopping water supplies (in the spring and summer season, Uzbekistan’ Ferghana Valley heavily depends on supplies from Kyrgyzstan’s water reservoirs). Bishkek, basically, sought to avoid any confrontation. Even so, it initiated a discussion on a water/energy consortium (in effect, introduction of payment for water supplies), accompanied by a thinly veiled threat, if necessary, to stop regular water supplies to the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley. Bishkek’s “democratic record,” praised by the West, and its pointed independence in contacts with Kazakhstan and Russia became additional irritants to Tashkent.

Ethnic Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations, above all in the Ferghana Valley, are one of the most serious problems. The ethnic/territorial conflict, arising primarily from a traditional shortage of water and land in the valley and aggravated by deep ethnic/psychological differences (e.g., nomadic traditions vs. a settled way of life or different levels of Islamization of the two nations), emerged several decades ago. Back in 1924, the cities of Osh, Dzhalal-Abad, and Uzgen, despite their predominantly Uzbek population, were incorporated into Kyrgyzstan under the pretext that otherwise southern Kyrgyz would not have any industrial centers of their own. In their ethnic makeup, these cities remained predominantly Uzbek. Nonetheless, Uzbeks, while still controlling trade and the services sector, were effectively frozen out of administrative positions that went to Kyrgyz. Another factor was a certain measure of discrimination against the Uzbek community in the language and education spheres. Conflict potential was fed by Kyrgyz migrants from rural areas moving to Uzbek towns. Many of them did not have housing or even residence permits, and had difficulty finding a job. In June 1990, the decision adopted by the authorities of the city of Osh to give them plots of land for housing led to skirmishes and an Uzbek pogrom. The Osh events shattered ethnic stability in southern Kyrgyzstan, bringing about a strong anti-Kyrgyz (oftentimes expansionist) mood within the Uzbek ruling elite. In any event, Tashkent repeatedly declared “readiness to provide the necessary assistance to Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic Uzbeks.”

It is quite possible that the background behind the tragic events at the time was the aspiration by the Kyrgyz authorities to use intimidation to curb emerging separatist trends within the large and influential Uzbek community in the republic’s south. Those fears were also stoked by a steady growth in the Uzbek population. According to official statistics, in 1939, there were 152,000 Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstan (10.4 percent of the total population); in 1989, 550,000 (12.9 percent); in 1993, 604,000 (13.5 percent), and in 2000, 680,000 (14.1 percent). Independent observers, however, question the accuracy of these figures, citing substantially higher numbers—from 900,000 to 1.1 million. Be that as it may, by 1999, Uzbeks became the second largest ethnic community in the country. Bishkek tends to regard this as a potential threat of demographic expansion that is further aggravated by the increasing surplus of the able-bodied population in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley. True, it has to be said that the aforementioned concerns partially have tribal roots: Representatives of the northern tribe of Sarybagysh, who have been running the republic since 1961, are very well aware about the close relationship that exists between leaders of the numerous and influential south Kyrgyz tribe of Kipchak and leaders of ethnically related Uzbeks. Furthermore, the dialect prevailing in the south has clear Uzbek roots. Thus, from Bishkek’s perspective, it has to contend with the threat of south Kyrgyz, not Uzbek, separatism.

As for Uzbekistan’s ethnic Kyrgyz community, today it numbers approximately 350,000 people (1.4 percent of the country’s population).9 Unlike Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks, the ethnic Kyrgyz community in Uzbekistan is highly integrated, which manifests itself in, among other things, the fact that ethnic Kyrgyz have the highest (compared to other ethnic minorities) level of “Uzbek language assimilation”—51 percent.10

As far as the territorial/border issue is concerned, before 1999 it was clearly a derivative problem. Disagreements were for the most part to do not so much with the status of 140 disputed sections as with the fact that Uzbekistan periodically blocked cross-border roads. It is noteworthy that Bishkek’s retaliation was effectively curbed by personal intervention on the part of I. Karimov, leading A. Akaev to dismiss, in quick succession, two akims of the Osh Region.11 True, following the 1999 Batken events, the numerous checkpoints on the Osh–Dzhalal-Abad highway were established on a parity basis.

In the wake of February 1999 bomb attacks in Tashkent, the Uzbek side took a series of unilateral measures on de facto demarcation, causing serious concern in Bishkek, above all over Uzbekistan’s intentions to finalize its jurisdiction over disputed sections of the border. Already in March 1999, following I. Karimov’s statement to the effect that the large-scale buying up of bread by visitors from Kyrgyzstan was provoking a serious food shortage in Uzbekistan, Tashkent unilaterally introduced passport control and tightened the customs regime. In response, the Kyrgyz side scrambled to finalize draft bilateral documents on delimitation, already in July 1999 presenting a corresponding memorandum for signing. True, the leadership of the other side, saying the time was not ripe, refused to discuss the subject.

In all, there are four Uzbek enclaves (Sokh, Shakhimardan, and two nameless ones) on Kyrgyz territory, guarded by local self-defense and regular army units. As of late 1999, in the wake of the Batken events, the Uzbek side set up mine fields around the Sokh enclave, in effect on Kyrgyz territory, 150 to 200 meters away from the agreed border line, in some places already demarcated with wire fences. There have already been numerous instances of cattle and even Kyrgyz citizens being killed by landmines. Bishkek regards the mining, without Kyrgyz consent, as an act of military intervention. Meanwhile, Tashkent, under various pretexts, refuses to transfer minefield maps to the Kyrgyz side. The Batken Region deputy governor had to send an official letter to the OSCE mission in Kyrgyzstan, asking the OSCE secretary general to persuade Uzbekistan to provide the map.

Despite the agreements reached in the course of I. Karimov’s visit to Kyrgyzstan, in September 2000, the situation on the border remains tense. In December 2000, the sides exchanged a series of “strikes” with Uzbek border guards closing off sections of Kyrgyz highways crossing into Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz side retaliating by sealing off the Uzbek enclaves of Sokh and Shakhimardan.

Tashkent continues to set up border posts. In the Ferghana Region alone, on a section abutting the Batken Region, seven border and customs posts were established from September 2000 until May 2001. In February 2001, Tashkent effectively forced Bishkek to sign (at the head of government level) a secret memorandum on a legal framework for border delimitation. The memorandum in particular envisioned the transfer of a part of Kyrgyz territory to link the Sokh enclave with Uzbek territory in exchange for a clearly non-equivalent section of the enclave. Following scathing criticism in parliament and the mass media (after the document was made public), the preliminary accord was terminated. As of October 2001, negotiations on border delimitation were effectively frozen.


While not on the whole being particularly close, relations between these two states are not marked by insurmountable contradictions or long-standing irritants. The absence of large proven mineral deposits in the Caspian border region takes the edge off the countries’ different approaches toward delimitation of sea borders. The rather low level of trade is compensated by the relative importance of Turkmen natural gas supplies to South Kazakhstan.12 A certain measure of friction between the two countries emerged in the late 1990s—mainly over transit shipments. In the sphere of regional geopolitics, Kazakh and Turkmen interests are, at least, not antagonistic and sometimes even harmonious insofar as refers to their common anti-Uzbek orientation.

Bilateral relations are not encumbered by any appreciable ethnic problems. There have been no serious ethnic disagreements since 1923-1924 (bloody clashes between Kazakhs in the Mangyshlak and Turkmen in the Krasnovodsk uezds). Another contributory factor was the small size of corresponding transborder ethnic groups13 and their pronounced political indifference.

Neither has the issue of territorial or border disputes arisen throughout the years of the states’ independence. Both sides take guidance from the provisions of multilateral CIS documents, enshrining the principle of the inviolability of inter-republic borders that evolved back in the Soviet era. The remaining—predominantly administrative/technical—problems were delegated to a joint delimitation commission, set up in June 1999. It held the first session in Almaty in November 2000. By now the greater part of the necessary delimitation procedure has been completed, which gives hope that a draft treaty on delimitation of the state border between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan could be signed in the foreseeable future. The sides have no plans for subsequent demarcation, let alone technical/engineering organization of the border; moreover, neither Astana nor Ashghabad consider such measures expedient.

The only historical episode that could become a potential source of friction over the territorial/border issue was the decision by the Soviet leadership (1932) to transfer to the Turkmen Union Republic salt fields in the Kara-Bogaz-Gol bay, which at the time were under Kazakh jurisdiction, and to move the inter-republic border from the southern part of the bay to the north. The decision was based on Turkmenia’s industrialization plans: In 1932, when no mineral deposits were as yet discovered on its territory, mirabilite mining was seen as the only viable source of the republic’s industrial development. By now the bay has virtually dried up, constituting an area of approximately 12,000 square kilometers with rich salt deposits. Nonetheless, the Kazakh side has never brought up this historical episode, and to all appearances, does not, in finalizing the interstate treaty on border delimitation, intend to raise the issue.


Uzbek-Tajik relations in the 1990s were (with rare exceptions) never free from conflict. Although a highly flexible and delicate approach was needed on either side to address the whole complex of contradictions, both objective and otherwise, the sides continuously demonstrated an inability to work out a compromise. The situation was impaired by, among other things, a subjective factor: a strained relationship between I. Karimov and E. Rakhmonov. Meanwhile, the system of complementary national economic ties, inherited from the Soviet era, tempted both sides to use elements thereof to exert pressure on each other. True, in the 1990s, Dushanbe was, rather, dependent on Tashkent for natural gas and energy supplies (the result of a civil war that wiped out the country’s once powerful hydroelectric power base) as well as for transport transit. Furthermore, about 90 percent of Tajikistan’s economic potential is concentrated in two enclave zones (Leninabad, now Khujand, Region and the Hissar Valley, including Dushanbe and Tursunzade, and the Regar aluminum factory). Their viability hinges entirely on stable links with Uzbekistan. On the other hand, Uzbekistan is dependent (in the spring and summer season) on water supplies from Tajikistan for land irritation in its part of the Ferghana Valley. Hence the traditional “seasonal” political warming: In March through July, Uzbekistan demonstrates readiness for a measure of compromise, putting off more serious aggravation in bilateral relations for the fall/winter period, when Tajikistan, for its part, becomes dependent on supplies of Uzbek natural gas and electricity. Furthermore, considering the specifics of Tashkent’s motor and railway communication with three regions in the Ferghana Valley, in winter, Dushanbe gets yet another source of leverage: transit transport. In addition, amid the continuing instability in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has (at least until recently) been exposed as a result of the virtually porous Uzbek-Tajik border. Hence two alternative policy models for Tashkent in its relations with Dushanbe: either a Tajik stabilization scenario, beneficial to Uzbekistan, or complete closure of the border. By and large, before 1999, Tashkent, by exerting pressure on Dushanbe, sought to place the situation in Tajikistan under its own control. The main instruments of pressure were gas and transport blockade as well as the tapping of war lords (ethnic Uzbeks) such as I. Boymatov or M. Khudoyberdyev. In the end, Tashkent utterly antagonized the traditionally dependent neighbor, bringing about strong anti-Uzbek sentiments and a mood for ethnic/political revenge there. It must be said that ever since the late 1990s this mood has been a major element in the pan-Tajik reconciliation process. One natural outcome of this has been the covert use by Dushanbe of a new effective lever: units of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, based in Tajikistan.

Ethnopolitical interdependence remains an extremely painful problem: There are large, and influential, ethnic Uzbek communities in Tajikistan, and ethnic Tajik communities in Uzbekistan. Importantly, serious disagreements begin already on the statistical level. While the present number of ethnic Uzbeks in Tajikistan (1.4 million to 1.5 million, or about 24 percent of the country’s population) is, with minor adjustments, recognized by both sides, there are fundamental differences over the number of ethnic Tajiks living in Uzbekistan. As of now, according to official Uzbek statistics, there are 1.2 million ethnic Tajiks in the republic (5.1 percent of its population) while Dushanbe, traditionally citing the results of Tajiks’ voluntary/forced assimilation in Uzbekistan, believes that their number is four to five times as large.14

Zones of latent and overt ethnic/territorial conflicts virtually coincide with areas of concentrated settlements of corresponding transborder ethnic communities. Today practically all leading political figures in Tajikistan (including E. Rakhmonov, A. Turajonzoda, G. Mirzoev, and M. Ziyeev) hint, directly or indirectly, as to the possibility of territorial claims on the Bukhara-Samarkand zone.

For its part, Tashkent predicates its policy toward Tajikistan on its traditional influence in the Hissar and especially Leninabad Region, which is oftentimes seen in Dushanbe as veiled, latent territorial claims. Back in 1992, commenting on “the wishes of Leninabad residents to join Uzbekistan as an autonomy,”15 I. Karimov made a point of saying that he would “support and protect Uzbeks, body and soul.” Alert observers at the time noticed the hint, to the effect that the Leninabad region “is populated mainly by Uzbeks,” even though, according to the latest nationwide census, in 1989, they accounted for just 31.3 percent of the region’s population. It is not without Uzbekistan’s involvement that residents of Khujand themselves promote the idea of sovereignty for the region.

Tashkent made first unilateral delimitation attempts in November 1998, when, in the Zaamin area, it set up barbed wire fences and a plowed strip on the border, attributing that to the “necessity of protecting the Zaamin nature preserve.”

In 1999-2000, Uzbekistan effectively recognized the collapse of its Tajik strategy, and had to close the border. It began unilateral delimitation and demarcation, in some especially risky (above all, from the point of view of possible breakthrough by units of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) sections, digging ditches and setting up barbed wire fences. As of 2000, Uzbek military has been laying minefields. These measures are still unilateral, and have a big conflict potential.

It was only on Uzbek initiative that a joint commission on border problems was set up, in the spring of 2000. Thus far the only outcome of its work has been an accord, reached in July 2000, stating that the border will be established on the basis of resolutions by the presidiums of the Tajik S.S.R. and Uzbek S.S.R. Supreme Soviets, passed back in 1961. Further negotiations were all but frozen in the wake of the August 2000 invasion by units of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, from Tajik territory. About a month after that, Tashkent, despite the numerous protests from Dushanbe, proceeded to mine also other sections of the border, in several stages (by April 2001, 56 Tajik citizens were killed), citing, among other things, the Tajik leadership’s inability to control the situation in their own country. Moreover, there are reported instances of deportation of ethnic Tajiks from border areas in Uzbekistan while borders were being sealed off on a regular basis. In response to that, in April 2001, Tajikistan’s permanent representative at the OSCE Council, citing all of the aforementioned facts, openly accused Uzbekistan of seeking domination in the region, finally announcing Dushanbe’s refusal to cooperate with Tashkent in fighting against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Today it is difficult not only to say when bilateral relations could be restored in full, but even to put a rough time frame on the resumption of the regular Uzbek-Tajik dialog on the border problem.


Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations are traditionally marked by a high level of political coordination and even trust.16 True, there are constant disagreements in the economic sphere (the sides have yet to work out a smooth mechanism of irrigation water and electricity supplies from Kyrgyzstan in exchange for coal and heating oil from Kyrgyzstan17 and a unified customs tariff; there are also problems over quantitative limitations on transit cargo shipments, and so forth). At the same time it is important to note that, unlike in relations between Bishkek/Astana, and Tashkent, these disagreements do not, as a rule, lead to any serious political complications.18 The Uzbek factor (Tashkent’s leadership ambitions, coupled with its systematic attempts to exert pressure on its neighbors) generally works in favor of Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations.19 Development and deepening of bilateral cooperation is certainly facilitated by the reciprocal ethnic/cultural proximity between the two nations as well as a good personal chemistry that exists between N. Nazarbaev and A. Akaev. On most international and regional problems, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have similar or coordinated positions, often actively supporting each other’s initiatives. There are some disagreements between them on the Russian vector.20

The emphatically friendly character of interstate and ethnic relations as well as the fact that the former borders between the two republics, inherited from the Soviet Union, by and large correspond to the pattern of settlement by the two neighboring peoples make for the virtual absence of any significant territorial/border disputes between Astana and Bishkek.

Perhaps the only issue in that respect was the national/territorial division of the 1920s-1930s, when a total of 836,700 hectares of border pasture and forest land were transferred to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, on a leasing basis. Sure, there were some disagreements between the sides over the issue,21 but that did not prevent them from successfully concluding, in May 1993, corresponding negotiations, and signing an intergovernmental agreement on inter-republic use of land, whereby 139,000 hectares of land were to be returned to Kyrgyzstan and 697,700 hectares, to Kazakhstan, before 1 January, 1996. By late 1998,22 when the sides opened consultations on delimitation, only 40 small border sections remained to be coordinated (a purely technical matter, by the sides’ own admission).23 By April 2001, 350 kilometers of border were finalized with just some technical details left to be ironed out, including the marking of the border line on the map. A final border delimitation agreement is expected to be signed in the very near future.

Indicative in this respect was the decision, made in November 2000, to study the possibilities of creating, along the border, zones of military transparency and trust, modeled on those existing within the framework of the Shanghai Group of Five (now the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO).


In the past decade, the pendulum of Uzbek-Turkmen relations has periodically been swinging from brief flurries of political/diplomatic activity to exacerbation of the various problem areas—such as, e.g., disagreements (that can in principle be resolved) over water use (aggravated by further shrinking of the Amudaria River and a catastrophic drought in Karakalpakia, in 2000-2001); transport, including pipeline, transit; and transborder hydrocarbon deposits. Furthermore, there are disagreements in foreign policy (Turkmenistan’s neutrality poorly squares with Tashkent’s attempts to suit integration schemes in the region to its own interests) and elementary enmity between the two heads of state. At the same time, neither side has effective sufficient leverage to pressure each other or viable political and economic incentives for mutually beneficial cooperation.24 The sum total of the aforementioned factors makes for a long-term period of stagnation in bilateral relations, accompanied by smoldering conflicts in the economic and political spheres.

In the 1990s, transborder ethnic communities without a doubt played a stabilizing role in Uzbek-Turkmen relations. Given the relatively small number,25 and the obvious passivity, of Uzbekistan’s ethnic Turkmen community, this applies primarily to Turkmenistan’s ethnic Uzbeks26—traditionally active and influential in trade and other business spheres, and constituting the bulk of imam-khatybs at “Friday” mosques. Until recently experts have recorded virtually no tension in Uzbek-Turkmen relations. Moreover, neither periodic interstate disagreements nor water shortages provoked any friction between the two communities. In the past two to three years, however, the situation started to change somewhat. First, the Uzbek minority began to be affected by Ashghabad’s policy of “Turkmenization” of the country. Second, cross-border migration of Uzbeks increased substantially. Ashghabad even started talking about a “demographic expansion” from Uzbekistan, fictitious marriages between migrants and local Turkmen women, and the growing exportation of foodstuffs from the country. So in February 2001, Turkmenistan unilaterally tightened the border regime, ending a simplified non-visa border crossing procedure for residents of adjacent areas27 and considerably reducing the number of border crossing points. All of that affected above all the interests of Uzbeks living on either side of the border, naturally impairing the relations between the two countries.

The first important step toward border delimitation was an agreement on cooperation in protecting state borders, signed on 16 January, 1996, recognizing the inviolability of the old border line between the Union republics. Nonetheless, even after 1996 there have been instances of seizure of Turkmen territory (in sectors up to 1.5 kilometers in depth), mainly by representatives of Uzbek customs and border guard services. Ashghabad’s strong reaction stopped Tashkent from going ahead with unilateral demarcation although it seriously considered that option. Furthermore, on 29 October, 1999, in an agreement signed between the two countries’ border services, on Ashghabad’ initiative, Uzbekistan in effect expressed readiness to gradually restore the old border line along the entire stretch, which was later reaffirmed by Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister B. Shikhmuradov in the course of November negotiations in Tashkent.

On 23 June, 2000, the Ashghabad session of a bilateral intergovernmental commission on border delimitation closed with the signing of a protocol recording the absence of mutual territorial claims and the recognition of the old inter-republic border line as inter-state border. On 22 September, 2000, in the course of I. Karimov’s official visit to Turkmenistan, the two presidents signed a treaty on border delimitation, providing a legal framework and successfully concluding two years of negotiations.


Analysis of the past decade shows that ethnic/territorial and border problems in Central Asia, finding no mutually acceptable solutions, seriously erode trust in the region, breeding instability. The situation is complicated by objective historical factors—such as, e.g., considerable disparity between the established inter-republic borders and the actual settlement patterns of particular ethnic communities in Central Asia. On the whole, the border situation is extremely complicated and convoluted. Despite the fact that inter-republic borders in the Soviet Union were delimited (in several stages), newly independent countries often de facto regard corresponding documents as invalid insofar as they were not of an “interstate character,” and treating them only as provisional—that is to say, subject to confirmation (or revision) on a corresponding bilateral basis. Large tracts of territory are sometimes considered to have been unjustly and unlawfully passed under the jurisdiction of a neighboring state. Delimitation is seriously hampered also by a vast number of conflicting acts and regulations inherited from the past.

Of the seven bilateral models of addressing ethnic/territorial and border problems, only two (Kazakh-Turkmen and Kazakh-Kyrgyz) are consistently conflict free and mutually beneficial. In three instances (Uzbek-Kazakh, Uzbek-Turkmen, and Kyrgyz-Tajik relations), conflict is predominantly latent while mutual benefit is virtually non-existent. Finally, Uzbek-Tajik and Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations are prevailed by elements of clear crisis and the lack of political readiness by the sides in question to look for long-term compromise solutions.

Bilateral disagreements are reduced either to administrative/technical problems, which need to be addressed by conciliation expert commissions on delimitation, or to political problems related to overt or latent territorial claims. In the latter instance, two (alternative, and sometimes parallel) lines of conduct are used: dragging out negotiations on bilateral border issues to the degree possible or unilateral demarcation and even engineering/technical organization of a non-delimited border.

It seems that border delimitation in Central Asia (except for Uzbekistan’s border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) could be finalized in the 2002-2003 period. The situation could be affected somewhat by the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001, leading to a short-term, and possibly even long-term, U.S. military presence in Central Asia. In light of intensive U.S.-Uzbek interaction, the prospect of the United States consolidating its positions in the region could further strengthen Tashkent’s leadership ambitions, only aggravating the existing friction between states in the region, in the political and territorial/border spheres.

1 The idea was to return under Kazakh jurisdiction the former military cantonments of Vozrozhdenie and Kantubek (with adjacent land), which, by order of the RF Defense Ministry, were transferred to the Kazakh side (see: Novoie pokoleniie (Almaty), 27 August, 1999).

2 The latter was inevitable owing to the geographic location of the airfield, the local wind rose, and technical characteristics of Uzbek Su-25 aircraft, which, on takeoff, had to fly four kilometers deep into Kazakh airspace.

3 Expert groups were tasked with working out a new draft compromise agreement, by mid-2002.

4 Indicative in this respect were skirmishes on the border (in the vicinity of the Bagy settlement) just prior to the November summit.

5 As of early 2000, there were under 80,000 ethnic Kyrgyz living in Tajikistan (1.3 percent of the republic’s total population); according to the first nationwide census in Kyrgyzstan, conducted in March 1999, there were 42,636 ethnic Tajiks in the republic (0.9 percent of the population).

6 Thus, following the introduction by Uzbekistan (March 2000) of exorbitant charges for transit of passenger cars ($45 per vehicle), Bishkek and Dushanbe immediately signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in modernizing the Khujand-Isfara-Osh-Murgab highway and the construction of bypass roads along Uzbek enclaves.

7 According to the Kyrgyz side, 70 disputed border sectors have yet to be straightened out.

8 In particular, a tripartite agreement on the point of junction of the state border of China, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, signed on 5 July, 2000 (within the framework of the Shanghai Group of Five summit in Dushanbe).

9 The figure of 300,000, cited in an interview with I. Karimov in the course of his visit to Kyrgyzstan, is assumed as a basis (see: Narodnoe slovo, 17 January, 1994).

10 The aggregate number of fluent speakers of Uzbek as well as those saying that it is their mother tongue.

11 For more detail, see: K. Mambetaliev, “Problemy uzbeksko-kyrgyzskoy granitsy v osveshchenii SMI Kyrgyzii,” in: Mnogomernyie granitsy Tsentral’noy Azii, ed. by M. Olkott and A. Malashenko, Moscow, 2000, pp. 29-30.

12 In the second half of the 1990s, supplies from Turkmenistan covered 25 percent of South Kazakhstan’s need for natural gas (see: K. Tokaev, Vneshniaia politika Kazakhstana v usloviiakh globalizatsii, Almaty, 2000, p. 280).

13 At present there are a little over 100,000 ethnic Kazakhs living in Turkmenistan, which accounts for 2 percent of the republic’s population; the number of ethnic Turkmen in Kazakhstan does not exceed several thousands.

14 This was first stated in public, in April 1996, by I. Usmonov, chairman of the parliament Ethnic Relations Committee, speaking at an OSCE seminar in Tashkent, titled “Confidence Building Measures in Central Asia.” He said in particular that ethnic Tajiks accounted for at least 20 percent of Uzbekistan’s population.

15 Nezavisimaia gazeta, 15 May, 1992.

16 In his book, Kazakh Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev writes about “close cooperation between the fraternal republics,” based on “trust and deep historical roots, kinship ties, and a commonality of language, culture, and traditions” (K. Tokaev, op. cit., pp. 276, 279).

17 A mutually acceptable solution was eventually found in the course of Kyrgyz Foreign Minister M. Imanaliev’s official visit to Kazakhstan (24-26 April, 2001).

18 True, there was a two-week crisis in bilateral relations (August 2000), when, in retaliation for Astana’s de facto blocking of motor and railway freight shipments from Kyrgyzstan to Russia, Bishkek for the first time in the past decade used the “water lever,” stopping supplies of irrigation water to Kazakhstan (for more detail, see: N. Omuraliev, “Kyrgyzstan,” Mezhetnicheskiie otnosheniia i konflikty v postsovetskikh gosudarstvakh. Yezhegodniy doklad, 2000, ed. by V.A. Tishkov and E.I. Filippova, Moscow, 2001, p. 342).

19 At present Astana and Bishkek are working on plans for natural gas supplies from Kazakhstan, which will enable Kyrgyzstan to end its dependence on Uzbekistan.

20 On the whole, compared to N. Nazarbaev, A. Akaev shows greater flexibility toward Russia and local ethnic Russians. Suffice it to mention a law declaring Russian a second official state language, signed on 29 May, 2000; in Kazakhstan, where Russian speakers constitute more than a half of the republic’s population, a similar decision is invariably blocked by the ethnocratic ruling elite.

21 In its time, the area of Susamyr was an object of major disagreements.

22 Negotiations opened in the wake of the presidents’ meeting in Cholpon-Ata (1998) and the signing of an agreement on delimitation of borders between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

23 This is a Kyrgyz estimate. According to Kazakh Foreign Minister E. Idrissov, there never were any disputed sectors in the first place.

24 Nonetheless, there is one tactical unifying factor: Tashkent and Ashghabad’s anti-Russian mood, which, however, should not be overestimated.

25 Ethnic Turkmen account for less than 0.7 percent of Uzbekistan’s population (approximately 150,000). It is only in Karakalpakia, a border region, where their share is considerably higher: 5 percent.

26 Uzbeks are today the second largest ethnic community in Turkmenistan, estimated at 500,000 (9 percent to 10 percent of the population). A higher figure (up to 1 million) that is sometimes cited is clearly an exaggeration. Ethnic Uzbeks live in concentrated settlements in Dashkhovuz and Lebap velayats along the border with Uzbekistan.

27 In accordance with an agreement on Uzbek-Turkmen visa regime, signed on 9 November, 1999.

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