Staunton, August 17 – Journalists often refer to August as “the silly season” because stories that wouldn’t normally pass muster are published in the absence of other news, but sometimes these otherwise neglected stories can at least in part shed light on larger issues and thus deserve attention.
For the last week, the Russian media, electronic and otherwise, has been filled with stories about the drying out of a lake on the Russian-Kazakhstan border, with some saying that Moscow has ceded a few hectares of territory to Astana, others denying that, and still others saying everything will return to normal when the rainy season come again.
Among them are those at kasparov.ru/material.php?id=599475D40AEBD, ej.ru/?a=note&id=31452, and regnum.ru/news/society/2310718.htmlmeduza.io/feature/2017/08/17/gde-nahoditsya-granitsa-nikto-ne-ponimaet).
Last Thursday, local Russian officials on the border posted online a report saying that the drying out of Lake Sladkoye on the Russian-Kazakhstan border meant that as of now, it is completely part of the territory of Kazakhstan. But the notion that Russia had ceded any land to anyone was so abhorrent that soon that statement was taken down and disowned.
But not quickly enough to avoid sparking controversy. More senior Russian officials denied that any transfer had occurred. However, the FSB made it worse by issuing a statement saying that the lake had been divided between the two countries earlier. That of course implied that any change in the waterline would change the border.
Kazakhstan’s embassy in Moscow insisted that there had been no change in the border, but then Russia’s natural resources minister Sergey Donskoy said that everything would go back to normal when the lake fills up with new rain water, again implying but not saying that the border had somehow been shifted.
Russia and Kazakhstan have been working on the demarcation of their border since 2005, and Russians are sensitive to any “gift” of Russian land to anyone, especially after Moscow ceded several hundred hectares to China a few years ago. But the present case highlights something that few recognize.
Unlike most countries, Russia in many cases still defines its borders external and internal not by designating lines from one point defined by latitude and longitude to another point similarly defined but rather in terms of named objects and their size, thus opening the way to disputes if the size of a body of water shifts.
Over the last two decades, Moscow has moved from this traditional way to the more internationally accepted one; but people who live along borders often still think in terms of mountains, lakes or rivers rather than latitude and longitude. That appears to be what has happened in this case.
But post-Soviet borders remain so sensitive to Russians for other reasons as well, including the unhappiness of many of them with the demise of the USSR and the rise of real borders where there were once unimportant administrative ones that any such report can be counted on to generate controversy.
Indeed, as one Russian politician, Dmitry Gudkov, put it on his Facebook page, “Crimea is ours but Novosibirsk already isn’t so much. Lake Sladkoye had been in Russia but now it has become part of Kazakhstan,” leading him to ask why there isn’t even more anger in Moscow about this (facebook.com/dgudkov/posts/1647452328629534).