For much of September, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have engaged in a heated diplomatic exchange over a shooting incident along their shared frontier. The row underscores the fact that border sensitivities in Central Asia continue to foster instability.
The face-off between Astana and Tashkent began in early September, when a Kazakhstan citizen was reportedly seriously wounded while grazing his horse near the frontier, according to the Almaty daily Ekspress-K. Kazakhstani officials maintain the shooting was deliberate. Uzbek authorities have countered that the wounded Kazakhstani was among a group of seven men on horseback who ignored verbal warnings to turn away from the border. When the horsemen did not respond, an Uzbek border guard fired warning shots. The wound was caused by a stray bullet, Uzbek authorities insist.
Tension escalated September 22 after the Uzbek embassy in Kazakhstan issued a statement condemning Kazakhstani authorities and the media for making "irresponsible and tactless statements" concerning the shooting incident. Kazakhstan's behavior "may not only worsen Uzbek-Kazakh relations but also provoke tension in border areas," the Uzbek statement said. It also accused Kazakhstan of trying to utilize the incident for "populist and other narrow political ends."
The Kazakhstani Foreign Ministry blasted the Uzbek statement as "irresponsible and contrary to international diplomatic practice and regards it as meddling in Kazakhstan's internal affairs." Kazakhstani diplomats went on to note that the country's border service had registered 1,127 border violations "by the Uzbek side" since last November. During that period, no incident provoked Kazakhstani border forces to resort to force. Over the same span, Uzbek border troops have been involved in five shooting incidents along the Kazakhstani frontier, resulting in one death and one wounding.
Kazakhstan's deputy foreign minister, Nurlan Onzhanov said during a news conference September 23 that the tendency of Uzbekistan's border troops to use excessive force is "taking on a systemic nature." At the same news conference, the chairman of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee, Bolat Zakiyev, complained that Uzbek officials showed "no desire" to address border issues.
On September 26, Kazakhstani and Uzbek officials engaged in another round of mutual recrimination. Uzbek diplomats characterized Kazakhstan's complaints as "unjustified and unconstructive." Meanwhile, the Speaker of Kazakhstan's Majlis, or lower house of parliament, Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, called on the government in Astana "to take a more principled line" against Uzbekistan, instead of "reacting sluggishly to every incident along the Kazakh-Uzbek border," Ekspress-K reported.
Tuyakbay described the Kazakhstani citizens involved in the early September shooting as "peasant farmers." He added that many in rural Kazakhstan "do not know where the border line goes because there are neither border posts nor control strips there," according to the Ekspress-K report. "People will take a long period of time to understand the existence of the border and get used to this."
The lack of clearly defined and tightly controlled borders in Central Asia has often provoked tension in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A few years ago, radical Islamic insurgents took advantage of the porous frontiers to wage an insurgent campaign that destabilized Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive ]. More recently, widespread smuggling prompted Uzbek authorities to seal the country's border, disrupting regional trade. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive ].
According to an expert who asked for anonymity, this latest Kazakhstani-Uzbek row could hint at a broader pattern of instability. In particular, Uzbek frontier policy could fuel tension between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek and Tashkent clashed over border issues less than a year ago, when Uzbekistan destroyed a bridge that connected the two countries. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive ].
Kyrgyz-Uzbek tension, in turn, could easily have a spillover effect on China. China signed agreements with Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at a recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting. The agreements seek to promote free trade in Central Asia - something that regional experts believe could reinforce China's regional security policies. Squabbling between those states is not likely to please Beijing, as it seems to dim hopes that goods and services will be able to flow freely in the near future.
Editor's note: Ibragim Alibekov is the pseudonym for a Kazakhstani journalist.