The ongoing anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan is fostering closer collaboration between two key Central Asian states. During a recent summit, the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan moved to bolster regional security by settling a long-running border dispute.
Ongoing border disputes - involving Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - have been a significant source of inter-state tension in Central Asia. A November 16 agreement signed by Nazarbayev and Karimov delineates 96 percent of the over 1,200-mile Kazakhstani-Uzbek border. The remaining border questions can be resolved amicably, both leaders indicated.
"For the first time in history, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan defined their common border as two independent states," Nazarbayev told a joint press conference November 17 in the Kazakhstani capital Astana. "By signing this agreement, we state that there are no 'so-called border problems' between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as well as no territorial claims to each other."
The Kazakhstani-Uzbek agreement sets the stage for broader regional cooperation. Kazakhstan is emerging as Central Asia's economic engine, while Uzbekistan is the region's most populous country and has the largest military establishment. The two states, acting in tandem, are capable of exerting considerable influence on other Central Asian states on a variety of multi-lateral issues, including border delineation and the joint use of water resources.
Karimov said that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan intended to establish a comprehensive border regime that manages cross-border traffic. He stressed that the imposition of new border procedures was intended to fight illegal migration and drug trafficking, and should not be interpreted as a sign of bilateral hostility.
"Any independent state should have an internationally recognized border," President Karimov said. "We are not building iron curtain or iron borders people cannot pass through. We are just saying that people should cross the border in a civilized way carrying their passports, not where they want, but where they are supposed to cross."
"Contraband happens in places where there is a lack of border security and legal basis for coordination of this security," Karimov added. "Once our border is recognized, we will move along following the example of European Union and ease border crossing procedures."
The three sections of the Kazakhstani-Uzbek border that remain to be delineated are in areas with ethnically mixed populations. Nazarbayev expressed optimism that border resolution on these areas can be resolved in the near future. "We will resolve this issue with mutual trust and in interests of both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with[in] a half a year period," Nazarbayev said.
Before the September 11 terrorist attacks sparked the anti-terrorism offensive against Afghanistan, many experts viewed border issues as a potential source of conflict in Central Asia. Uzbekistan had taken a hard-line stance with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on border questions, going so far as to mine the Uzbek side of the frontier with Tajikistan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Border disputes had also strained Kazakhstan-Uzbek relations. In 2000, for example, Uzbekistan's unilateral move to demarcate the border in disputed areas prompted a furious diplomatic protest from Kazakhstani leaders.
The new security challenges posed by the September 11 attacks have prompted Nazarbayev and Karimov to focus on cooperation. In addition to the border issue, the two leaders discussed water usage, regional security and ways to bolster trade during their summit.
At the joint press conference, Nazarbayev offered support for Karimov's crackdown on radical Islamic activity in Uzbekistan. Human rights groups say thousands of moderate Islamic believers have been arbitrarily and unjustly jailed in the campaign. [For background see the EurasiaNet Human Rights archive]. However, Nazarbayev downplayed the allegations of widespread human rights abuses, pointing out that both the United States and Great Britain had toughened anti-terrorism laws in response to the September 11 attacks.
"Many accused Uzbekistan of religious rights violations," Nazarbayev said. "I think: 'Thank God, we can live peacefully due to Uzbekistan's ability to maintain order.'"
In expressing full support for the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, Nazarbayev and Karimov both suggested that the threat posed by radical Islam in Central Asia was far from resolved. "Things in Afghanistan have not yet peaked, the operation still has a long way to go," Karimov said. "What is most important for us is that peace and stability is established in Afghanistan."
Alima Bisenova is a freelance journalist, based in Astana, Kazakhstan.