Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | January 13, 2008

How strong are the borders in Central Asia?

What are the problems with Central Asian Borders? Apart from being unnatural, some parts disputed, hostile to the populations living on the outskirts of the Stans’ territories, strongly policed, securitised, and mined they are also poorly equipped; and the border guard personnel lack proper training.  

You are absolutely right if you think that there are no natural borders, and that all international boundaries are artificial. But there seems to be borders which are more unnatural than the others, like the ones in Central Asia. This wasn’t a much of a problem until the Socialist Republics gained their independence, or the independence was given to them (some still do not think this was a good idea).

Independence made the states not only independent, but also changed the status of their inter-boundary relations. Those vague lines between Socialist Republics, drawn by Stalin sometime in 1920s didn’t mean much; some weren’t even delimited or demarcated. But in 90s these vague lines become international boundaries between independent wish-to-be-democratic republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This adds up to the daily frustrations of the populations struggling for their survival and being denied or charged for crossing the border and visiting relatives or children across the border.

The borders which were hardly demarcated are now walled and manned severely, at least in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan (guess these are the states that can, more or less, afford it). The issue gets ridiculously unhealthy when one hears about a number of people and animals blown up on the mines, or shot by the border guards. Central Asian border is not the place you would like to experience going to. Better book a flight, many would say. But very few Central Asians can afford experience of flying. The feeling is clear, border is dangerous and heavily militarized. But still there are some things which let one think if the borders are that hard as they seem. No doubt, there are harder border and there are softer borders. Uzbek borders or border guards might make some people shiver of fear; some may be remembering  their experience of border crossing in Kazakhstan with deep frustration. Kyrgyz and, to a lesser degree, Tajik borders, are on the other hand seen as soft and relaxed. Exactly this is the reason why Uzbek borders are so harsh with controlling movements from or to Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. Uzbek officials distrust the competencies of Kyrgyz border guards, and Tajikistan is too close to Afghanistan and has a too a long border with it, which makes it fairly easy for the smugglers to carry on their drug business.

Here is an interesting case of a radioactive material being detected in the train on the way to Iran. The funny part is that the train passed three border check points in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan but was detected only on the Uzbek border. The train was turned back to Kyrgyzstan.

According to Kubanych Noruzbaev, an official from the Kyrgyz Ecology and Environmental Protection Ministry, “the material was cesium-137, a product of nuclear reactors and weapons testing that is often used in medical devices and gauges”. “It emits radiation, radioactive waves, and they are harmful, maybe not in mediocre amounts but prolonged exposure,” Noruzbaev said. “If you held it a while, depending on the dosage, you would get burns of varying degrees.”

Noruzbaev is wondering: “how could it happen that it was not detected when it passed through special checkpoints?” “And even more so, how could a [radioactive] source like cesium-137 or -140 pass [without detection]?”

Right,… this case shows that BOMCA, the European Union’s Border Management Programme in Central Asia, has a lot more to do in Central Asia, providing trainings and technical assistance to improve border management in the region.


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