With the collapse of the Soviet Union, defining the borders of Central Asia’s newly independent nations became an urgent task across the region. For young Kazakhstan, establishing borders with China, Russia and other nations was a foreign policy priority. Kazakhstan’s land border is 13,400 kilometres long (its Caspian Sea borders would be defined later, after determining the legal status of the sea) and the process of delimiting the new nation’s borders was one of the most important steps it took in establishing a lasting, sovereign state protected by international law.
The delimitation of the borders of sovereign Kazakhstan, like the other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), was based on the real administrative boundaries of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) with the Russian State Federative SSR, the Uzbek SSR, the Kirghiz SSR, the Turkmen SSR, and included part of the USSR’s state border with China. However, not having been independent states subject to international law until after the fall of the USSR, legally establishing the new borders was of vital importance to future relations in the neighbourhood and the world.
Legitimising existing borders
The CIS countries agreed to apply the international legal concept of “uti possidetis,” or “as you possess,” which recognises the consistency of borders in the process of succession. (This principle was also used in the delimitation of borders between states in South America.) Such an approach assumes that all contentious issues arising between states will be resolved in the future through interstate peace agreements.
Kazakhstan applied the law of historic succession to define its inherited territory and borders after the dissolution of the USSR. Article Three of the Declaration of Sovereignty of the Kazakh SSR in 1990 said, “The territory of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic within the existing boundaries is indivisible and inviolable and cannot be used without her consent.” The subsequent law on the country’s borders clearly articulated that the border can only be determined by international treaties ratified by Kazakhstan’s Parliament.
The proclamation, of course, created a pressing need to map and legally define those “existing boundaries” at the state level and create mechanisms to resolve any disputes.
Since the first days of its existence as an independent state, Kazakhstan has declared its firm commitment to the norms and principles of international law. “First of all, we declare the peaceful orientation of [Kazakhstan’s] policies and declare that we have no territorial claims to any state of the world,” announced President Nursultan Nazarbayev when defining Kazakhstan’s initial foreign policy direction. From the beginning, Kazakhstan has adhered to the principles of the inviolability of existing borders and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.
Upon independence, Kazakhstan’s diplomatic service declared that the foreign policy priority would be the demarcation of state borders with all neighbouring states. The process of legally defining the interstate borders with all neighbouring states was completed within a relatively short period, between 1992 and 2005. The delimitation of the borders was completed in three stages: with China, the Central Asian states and Russia.
Establishing the border with China
The delimitation of the Kazakhstan-Chinese border has a long history. Territorial disputes from the Soviet era complicated the situation. The Sino-Russian treaty of the 19th century formed a foundation for resolving border issues, but some sectors of the border still had two lines, one negotiated according to the treaty, the other the de facto border on the ground.
Kazakhstan began the negotiation process on border issues with China in 1992. Within a few years, Kazakhstan and China had signed five international treaties, clearly defining the boundary between the two countries. At the conclusion of the 1994 treaty, some disputes remained regarding the areas in the East Kazakhstan and Almaty oblasts. After exploring all possible options to address this issue, the disputed territory was divided and Kazakhstan received most of the disputed 537 square km.
The treaty between China and Kazakhstan recognised a border 1,782 km long. The final protocol between the governments of Kazakhstan and China on the demarcation of their shared border was signed on May 10, 2002.
Both sides entered the negotiations with their own interests in mind, and both made compromises to see the border finally established. This long-negotiated political compromise contributed to the establishment of a strategic partnership with China. Kazakh diplomats often cite a phrase attributed to Chinese philosopher Confucius: “Politics is the daughter of history, and history is the daughter of geography.”
Establishing borders within Central Asia
The borders between what are now the independent nations of Central Asia were defined as internal administrative-territorial borders during the Soviet era. Those borders were designated only on maps, however, and not clearly marked on the ground. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some radical groups in the region called for the revision of existing borders.
In September 1999, the governments of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan established a commission for delimiting their shared borders.
The government of Kazakhstan utilised several legal documents to recognise the administrative-territorial division of the former Soviet Union, including the Alma-Ata Declaration of December 21, 1991; the Declaration on Compliance with the Principles of Cooperation within the Commonwealth of Independent States of February 14, 1992; the Declaration of Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and Inviolability of State Borders Among Members of the Commonwealth of Independent States of April 15, 1994, and various other bilateral treaties.
A contested border with Uzbekistan
From the standpoint of compliance with the constitution of the USSR, the administrative border between the Kazakh SSR and Uzbek SSR was clearly regulated. Two hundred kilometres of the 2,351 km border, however, ran through heavily populated areas of the two countries. Negotiations to determine this border were not easy.
In February 2000, Tashkent hosted the first round of negotiations between the official delegations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to harmonise the borders. The second round of talks, in Astana in May 2000, led to the delimitation on the ground. Despite the challenging negotiations, controversial issues have since been resolved through compromises.
Establishing the border with Russia
In his book “Strategies for the Formation and Development of Kazakhstan as a Sovereign State” (1992), President Nazarbayev notes that present-day Kazakhstan was historically a territory controlled completely by many ethnic tribes and that these tribes later composed the Kazakh nation.
The independent state in its current form, therefore, is not someone’s gift to the Kazakhs, but is the historic and indigenous land of Kazakhs, and the authorities will use all constitutional means to ensure the integrity of the unitary state and the unity and inviolability of its territory. This was an important statement and laid important principles for Kazakhstan’s foreign policy.
However, at the initial stage in 1992, according to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, now chairman of Kazakhstan’s Senate, the Russian government “insisted on the ‘light’ version of the treaty [defining the countries’ borders],” suggesting Kazakhstan exclude the paragraph on recognising the territorial integrity of states. In this situation, “it took considerable effort” and the personal intervention of Nazarbayev, who spent more than one round of talks with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, “to persuade the Russians to change [their approach].” As a result of these negotiations, an agreement on the foundation for all following Kazakh-Russian relations was signed.
After more than a decade of intensive negotiations, the important process of delimiting state borders was completed and the sovereign Republic of Kazakhstan established internationally recognised borders and settled all disputes with neighbouring states.
The author is head of Institute of State History under the Ministry of Education and Science of Kazakhstan.