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Border disputes increase potential for conflict

[Kyrgyzstan] Kyrgyz border guards near the Uzbek Sokh enclave
The ICG is urging reform of Central Asian security structures (IRIN)

An independent group, warning that border disputes in Central Asia can lead to conflicts, has urged the international community and the concerned countries to resolve them for the sake of regional security, improved economic cooperation and better ethnic relations. The region is one of the poorest in the world.

"Resolving these lingering, and often quite substantial, border disputes has become critical," said a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a private multinational organisation, working to prevent and contain conflicts in the world.

Ustina Markus, ICG's senior analyst, told IRIN on Friday from the southwestern Kyrgyz city of Osh, that while tanks were not lined up on the frontiers, the disputes were a thorn in relations. "And if it remains simmering it will aggravate relations," she said.

"Residents' lives are made miserable due to these disputes, and nobody knows how many people have been killed due to landmines at the borders," she said, adding: "People lose their livestock regularly."

The report gives details of the intricacies of the border disputes of individual Central Asian states - already suffering from a wide array of economic and social problems - and recommends steps towards resolving them.

For the past decade, Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have all been involved in high-stake negotiations to define their respective borders, but the report said a resolution was still not in sight. "Strong-arm politics, economic pressures, shadowy backroom deals, nationalist sentiments, public dissatisfaction and an environment of mutual mistrust have marked this process," it added.

A Central Asia expert and author, Ahmed Rashid, said in a recent interview published by AsiaSource, a resource of the Asia Society - an American institution trying to promote understanding and communications amongst people globally - that the situation in the region was "explosive" for a variety of reasons.

"There is an extremely explosive situation in these areas, which is not being tackled and what it needs is a political and economic strategy," Rashid warned. "What is needed from the international community is a comprehensive political strategy which will take into account the extremely volatile demographic, ethnic and political situation in Central Asia, which is fuelling extremism," he added.

The border disputes arose after the independence of Central Asian states from Russia in 1991. Moscow had established administrative borders of its Central-Asian republics in the mid-1920s, which followed neither natural geographic boundaries nor strict ethnic lines. To complicate things further, the borders were redrawn on numerous occasions. "All these factors combined to create a complex stew of territorial claims and counterclaims once the Central Asian republics became independent states," the report noted.

Markus said the most complex border negotiations involve the Ferghana Valley, where a myriad of enclaves exist. All three countries which share it - Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan - have historical claims to each other's territory and economic interests in the transport routes, rivers, reservoirs, and industries. The enclaves were created by the former Soviet Union. "It prevents the states to have fully normal relations even though they do want to cooperate," she added.

The report recommended that unilateral demarcations should cease, and all demarcations should take place transparently through official joint commissions and in consultation with the local populations. It also urged that all the countries should cease the practice of mining unmarked frontiers and clear existing mines from such locations.

The ICG called on Uzbekistan and Russia to open their map archives as a shared resource for the other regional countries. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have a long-drawn border dispute, similar to many bilateral differences of other countries in the area.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should offer its services as an impartial mediator for regional border disputes, the report urged, adding: "In cases where border disputes represent a serious threat of conflict, the OSCE should consider establishing border monitoring missions."

Markus said the report had called for the OSCE to become a mediating body because of its reputation of being an impartial organisation, and also because all the regional countries were its members.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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