When borders go bad

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The squiggly red line you see is what separates Kyrgyzstan from its Western neighbours: Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Borders like this were first drawn in the 1930s when the Russians set about carving up territory into ethnically based soviet republics. Their determination to have ethnic groups governed by their own people and/or their determination to create cumbersome, weak states that would be unlikely to challenge their authority led to some of the crazier borders in the world.

Of particular note are the enclaves: territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that are completely surrounded by Krygyzstan like the Vatican City is completely surrounded by Italy, but without the same market for postcards.

To start with there wasn’t much trouble. Governance of Central Asia effectively took place in Moscow, which could easily make plans that crossed the nominal borders it had drawn.

When independence came in 1991 the borders of the previous Soviet Republics were an obvious starting point for the new independent stans, and they fit comfortably with the idea that new nations would be bound together by ethnicity.

Things haven’t been peachy since. Enclaves and ‘chessboard towns‘ (jointly governed and where your ethnicity determines your citizenship) have seen frequent violence and protests. Governments have been pouring resources into protecting their borders (and Uzbekistan puts mines around their enclaves in Kyrgyzstan). But border authorities tend to be abusive and violent. Both Russia and the US are giving significant military aid to all the countries to beef up their borders further. Borders close without warning. Enclaves can be disconnected from the country that governs them. It’s a mess.

There have been some efforts to renegotiate borders, or at least to agree on the bits still drawn with dotted lines. But progress is slow – not one kilometre agreed since 2006 – and tends to take a back seat whenever there is a burst of violence.

There is another alternative to the issue. Instead of redrawing borders, just reduce their importance. Lots of other former soviet states allow free trade and free movement of people. That’s long been the arrangement that has sustained the crazy Belgium-Netherlands border which curls about and cuts through houses. I accept this idea isn’t easily applied when states still mark their territory with landmines but I dare say the solution to the regional tension here is less border security, not more.

8 thoughts on “When borders go bad

  1. We have an enclave in an enclave here. I understand only the locals living in the second order enclave are allowed through the first order(?) enclave. But we should go see.

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