The border disputes born after the fall of the USSR represent one of the main obstacles to the cooperation between Central Asian states towards a sustainable regional development on the long-term. Moreover, in the heart of the majority of the newly formed conflicts regarding border demarcation was often found Uzbekistan. This came as a natural consequence of this country’s central geographic location in the region, its large size and the historical and cultural configuration.
From the ascension of Sahavkat Mirziyoyev to Uzbek presidency, improving relations with neighboring countries and solving the existing differences became essential. As such, the country adopted a new doctrine “Central Asia – the main priority of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy” in order to engage more actively in regional development initiatives, which contrasts the isolated stance it held in the past years.
To put into context the significance of Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy for the entire region, we mention a part of the tensions it has on border demarcations with all its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan:
- Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan: The Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier is one of the most contradictory in post-Soviet space (here is located the Ferghana Valley, which we will discuss later on). Ethnic Uzbeks make up about 15% of Kyrgyzstan’s 6 million or so citizens, and almost all of them have close relatives across the border. Uzbekistan is also home to tens of thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz with family members in Kyrgyzstan.
- Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan: The Kazakh-Uzbek frontier is also a hotspot, especially when looking at the village of Bagys, located 7 km north of Tashkent. The area is part of a larger territory Kazakhstan leased to Uzbekistan, left in a legal limbo following independence. Most inhabitants are ethnic Kazakhs that consider themselves part of Kazakhstan, yet their salaries are often paid and taxed by Uzbekistan. In addition, Uzbek police patrol the area. Nonetheless, Tashkent has been reluctant to return the lands, and Astana did not actively pursue the issue. The result was status uncertainty for the residents. About half hold Kazakh passports and citizenship, while the other half have Uzbek passports. Given the tightened border controls, it is little surprise that ethnic Uzbek and Kazakh minorities continue to migrate out of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at rapid rates. Even if demarcation is finalised, both countries still face the huge problem of how to ensure freedom of movement across the border.
- Uzbekistan – Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has made historical claims to the Uzbek regions of Khiva and Khorezm. Turkmen nationalists argue that the majority of the inhabitants are of Turkmen descent, and Khiva was home to one of the most influential regional khanates during the 1800s. At the same time, Uzbek nationalists assert that the Tashauz (Dashoguz) and Turkmenabad (formerly Cherjev) areas in Turkmenistan have majority Uzbek populations and that Uzbekistan has a rightful claim to this territory. Such claims could have lead to a redrawing of the borders, however, were not entertained by the authorities in Tashkent or Ashgabat. The governments recognized that raising those issues would potentially open the path for renegotiating all Central Asian borders and thus preferred to adhere to the Soviet administrative borders. The issues discussed were concerning the demarcation line, the type of border regime, and the status of the leased lands on each territory.
- Uzbekistan – Tajikistan – This border is a main point of contention for the relations between the two states. The cities of Samarkand and Bukhara are two of the most important and historic in Central Asia and have populations that are largely ethnic Tajik. The inclusion of these territories in Uzbekistan when the Soviet republic borders were drawn in 1924 deeply angered many ethnic Tajiks and inspired considerable irredentist sentiment. These territorial claims were reignited in the early 1990s when, with independence, the countries embarked on forging their independent identities. Moreover, officially, approx. 1.25 mil. ethnic Tajiks continue to reside in Samarkand, Bukhara and the surrounding areas in Uzbekistan, although sources claim that there are as many as 7 mil. Uzbekistan fears that this substantial minority could someday be galvanised by an ethnic separatist movement, supported by the presence of radical Islamist groups.
Therefore, we note the importance of the efforts made to solve the border disputes as Uzbekistan neighbors all the Central Asian states, and the existing tensions with any of them pose a challenge to the regional dialogue and improving cooperation.
Uzbekistan’s New Foreign Policy
Throughout 2017, Uzbekistan’s relationship with its neighbors improved substantially, which is reflected in other cooperation areas as well.
Starting from June 16, Kyrgyzstan began delivering low-price electricity to Uzbekistan. A side benefit is that by releasing water to generate electricity at its hydropower facilities, Kyrgyzstan is also favoring its neighbor’s agricultural sector too.
For the first time in history, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have committed to deepening bilateral military cooperation. Kazakhstan’s Defense Minister Saken Zhasuzakov met in Astana on August 25 with the secretary of Uzbekistan’s Security Council, Viktor Makhmudov, to discuss the prospects for bolstering defense ties.
In August 2017, Tashkent hosted a major international conference entitled “Central Asia is the main priority of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy”. The conference’s central theme was Uzbekistan’s new regional course. All participants agreed that Tashkent’s positioning made it possible to radically change the political atmosphere in Central Asia and laid the foundations for a more effective regional cooperation. Tashkent’s main foreign policy priority is increasing regional cohesion, including Afghanistan. This path was already formalized into a holistic and integrated doctrine, with the principal goal of comprehensively deepening relations and increasing interaction with the states of Central Asia.
Uzbekistan’s active regional policy for rapprochement with all Central Asian states, without exception, and intensification of political dialogue at the highest level has already produced significant practical results, particularly by providing new impetus for cooperation in the trade, economic, transport and communication spheres. This will lead to increasing the region’s competitiveness at a global level.
Uzbek initiatives facilitated interconnectivity through the construction of new transportation infrastructure, economic deregulation to simplify business entrepreneurship, liberalizing of national currency controls, and other market-oriented reforms in pursuit of Uzbekistan’s goal of becoming a regional transportation and investment hub.
Moving forward into cooperation, Uzbekistan increased its trade turnover with Central Asian countries by 13% in the first half of 2017. The volume of trade between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan grew by 69%, while trade with Tajikistan increased by 22% and with Kazakhstan by 11%. Since early 2017, a high-speed rail connection has also been established between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Tashkent resumed its air service with Dushanbe for the first time in 25 years, while flights have commenced between Tashkent and the Issyk-Kul region in Kyrgyzstan. The section of the M-39 highway traversing Uzbekistan’s border with Kazakhstan was also opened for passage.
Why are there so many border conflicts in Central Asia?
The disintegration of the Soviet Union has led to a process of political and administrative reconfiguration of the newly independent territories.
The former Central Asian Soviet Republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – were formally established by the Soviet power in the 1920s–30s without taking into account the complicated historical and cultural intricacies of the area. After the fall of the USSR and those republics’ political independence, the process of creating new national state formations began, as a new system of inter-state relations was forming. Naturally, the process has not been easy and two of the main reasons were the artificial formation of the Central Asian socialist republics in the early years of Soviet power and the policies pursued during the following years. Territorial delimitation in Central Asia was a very complicated and dramatic affair- the borders were redrawn on numerous occasions, and republics were permitted to secure long-term leases of territory from other republics, which, consequently, led to the formation of enclaves and exclaves.
In addition, a direct consequence of the political instability was the apparition of numerous conflicts regarding border recognition and land demarcation.
The most well-known border conflict in the region has at the center the Ferghana Valley, positioned between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This area has played a role both in pivoting towards stability in Central Asia and in becoming the starting point of violent conflict throughout the history of the region, due to the fact that all three bordering countries set historical claims to each other’s territory and economic interests in the transport routes, rivers and industries.
Currently, the tension among different ethnic, social, and political groups is high because of overpopulation, the increasing scarcity of water and arable land, and the economic hardships and social differentiation during the political, economic, and social transformation that occurred after the Soviet Union collapsed.
However, the Ferghana Valley constitutes just one of multiple border conflicts that exist in the region. For example, Kyrgyzstan hosts seven significant disputed territories: two belong to Tajikistan – Varukh, with a population of some 30,000, and a very small one north of Isfana – remainder to Uzbekistan, including the relatively large exclave of Sokh with a population of nearly 50,000, and Shahimardan. The other enclaves are small, with populations that usually do not amount to more than a few hundred people. Nonetheless, the problems present are caused by difficult access and restricted access to adequate resources.
Kazakhstan has also had a trying experience in dealing with Uzbekistan over the common border. Regardless, some progress was made in November 2001, when the two states signed an agreement delimiting 96% of their borders. The declaration of independence adopted by the village of Bagys and its population of 2,000 at the end of 2001 underlines how negotiations have stalled in some areas and highlights the difficulties these states have in coming to agreements over competing claims.
Disputes between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan initially led to closing the borders, however, the bilateral relationship was improved by the new Uzbek foreign policy. Moreover, in 2017 the discussions regarding solving the territorial demarcation issue were restarted and marked through a series of official meetings.
To sum up, we could state that solving the states’ differences on border delimitations constitute one of the main premises to building a sustainable regional system.
Uzbekistan’s active role in opening new negotiations with its neighbors and in initiating a multi-faceted modernization process, signals an improvement of the relationships between Central Asian states, as well as an interest for development through increasing cooperation.