Turkmens, Kazakhs work to repair Soviet-era border legacy

January 10. Central Asia News Wire

By Martin Sieff

Turkmens, Kazakhs work to repair Soviet-era border legacyKazakhstan plans to complete its negotiations with neighboring Turkmenistan over their joint borders by the end of this year, in time for Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of national independence in December, the Kazakh transportation minister announced Monday.

The announcement is important and unusual for several reasons.

It reflects the strong and improving relations between the two energy-rich former Soviet republics of Central Asia – a condition which certainly did not exist under the isolationist rule of Turkmenistan’s founding President Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as Turkmenbashi. Niyazov died in late 2006.

But the report is also revealing because it reflects how poorly drawn the borders of the nations of Central Asia are. The vague borders reflect a cynical heritage from the Soviet Union of “divide and rule”and neglect that was applied uniformly to the region for three quarters of a century.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, famously referred to the previous Czarist empire as “a prison house of nationalities.” But under Lenin and his successor Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union notoriously became a concentration camp of nationalities over the first 40 years of Soviet history.

Stalin right after the Russian Revolution became “Commissar for Nationalities”and was the main architect for drawing up the borders of Soviet republics and autonomous regions within them- especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The borders he approved were notorious. They ignored clear geographic divisions and ethnic lines of settlement. They were also drawn with confusion and ambiguity in many places.

This sparked generations of conflict between neighboring republics that had to be mediated by the central Soviet authorities in Moscow. This was exactly what Stalin had intended in his cynical application of “divide and rule” principles.

This heritage of suspicion between neighboring-and all too often rival-Soviet republics also bedeviled the development of prosperous and peaceful relations between the newly independent states in the early 1990s.

In the case of Turkmenistan, this heritage of suspicion and poor relations with neighbors was intensified by the ultra-isolationist policies of Niyazov. During his 15 years in power, his government refused to join the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).Turkmenistan remained the most isolated “island nation” in Central Asia.

This situation only started to change when current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov took power at the beginning of 2007. Berdimuhamedov has moved cautiously since then. Relations with the other two energy-rich Stans – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – have slowly but steadily warmed and are now excellent.

Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev was warmly welcomed and accorded a prominent role in the successful regional peace and security summit that President Berdimuhamedov hosted in his capital Ashgabat last June.

The Turkmens have closely studied the successful foreign policy and foreign investment attraction efforts that have helped transform Kazakhstan. Now Turkmenistan is also beginning to make giant strides in wooing major U.S. and international energy majors such as ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips.

Though Monday’s announcement by the Kazakh minister relates to the two countries’ land borders, regional energy development has also helped fuel cooperation between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan on resolving the long-standing issue of dividing the Caspian Sea and the energy riches that lie below it.

The issue of demarcating borders within the Caspian itself did not exist during the Soviet era. And it appeared to be only a minor issue in the early years of independence for both countries after the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

However, today, with global demand soaring for both oil and natural gas, and both the Kazakh and the Turkmen economies booming on the backs of their rapidly expanding energy producing sectors, demarcating the Caspian lines of division, and resolving any other outstanding issues, has become far more important.

The long, slow nature of resolving the region’s land and Caspian Sea border issues contrasts favorably with the continuing chaos that Stalin’s old, deliberately confusing borders, are still generating in the Caucasus nations of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. All three of those former Soviet republics are still mired deep in fierce border controversies that have often turned violent on a large scale over the past two decades.

Nothing comparable has happened in Central Asia and that is a tribute to the restraint and good sense of the regional governments involved there.

President Berdimuhamedov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev are determined to continue working constructively together to reduce the possible causes for any future misunderstanding and tension. The wretched post-communist records of conflict in the Caucasus, and in the successor nations to Yugoslavia in the Balkans, testifies to the dangers of ignoring such issues for too long.