Staunton, May 19 – The borders among the post-Soviet states are not something natural and immemorial, despite Moscow’s frequent claims and the West’s unwillingness to raise the issue less that spark conflict. Instead, they were drawn by Moscow for its own purposes and not on the basis of negotiations with the union republics.
Because of that reality, thirty years after the end of the USSR, many of these borders have not been delimited and demarcated and are becoming sources of serious conflict in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, most recently between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors and between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Unfortunately, because of Moscow’s insistence and the West’s unwillingness to open what it sees as a can of worms, many involved in negotiations between these countries often appear to accept Soviet maps as the gold standard for resolving disputes and thus fight over which of the various maps produced at various times for various purposes are to be used.
There are no easy answers, but it is important for all involved to recognize that the Soviet past with regard to borders is not what they assume it to be, that these borders were drawn by Moscow unilaterally, and that they were more often poorly defined frontiers than precisely designated borders.
To help in that process, the author of these lines publishes below an article he prepared more than 30 years ago about Soviet republic borders at a time when the USSR was falling apart and the issue of border changes was one Moscow used to argue that the Soviet Union could not be divided up.
I am republishing it now so that it will be available on an online format. Up to now, it has been accessible only on hard copy.
From: RFE/RL Report on the USSR, September 28, 1990, pp. 20-21
Can Republican Borders be Changed?
Since the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis began, Moscow spokesmen from Mikhail Gorbachev on down have insisted that republican borders cannot be changed. Their statements are not surprising, given the chaos that might result if all sixty current territorial demands were taken up at once. But too often these comments have implied that republican borders are something set in stone, unchanged since they were established. In fact, in the year 1921-1980, there were ninety interrrepublican territorial transfers that were large enough to be registered in central government gazettes (Olga Oliker, “An Examination of Territorial Changes within the USSR,” unpublished paper, Emory University, 1989) and a far larger number of transfers that were too small to be included there (F. Dmitriyev, “K istorii natsional’no-territorial’nogo razgrancicheniya Srednei Azii I Kazakhstana, “ Izvestiya Akadenii nauk Tadzhikskoi SSR. Seriya: Vostokovedenie, istoriya, filologiya, no. 3 (14) (1989), pp. 31-33). Newly opened Moscow archives shed light on both the numbers and – what is more important – the ways the transfers were handled in the first twenty years of Soviet power (ibid).
Numerous Transfers and Numerous Demands
Olga Oliker of Emory University examined the central Soviet government gazettes for the period 1921 to 1980. She found a total of ninety transfers of territory among Union republics and an equally large number of territorial shifts to and from smaller autonomous state units (Oliker, op.cit.). Grouped by decade, the shifts among Union republics were as follows 45 between 1921 and 1930, 26 between 1931 and 1940, four between 1941 and 1950, seven between 1951 and 1960, five between 1961-1970, and five between 1971 and 1980.
There are two ways to read these findings. The first – and it is the one Moscow insists on – is that the Soviet authorities had to make a large number of shifts initially as they put the USSR together. Now, they argue, there is no need for further changes. Gorbachev’s arguments on this point seem mostly pragmatic, but many reformers also support such a position as a means to the end of depoliticizing ethnicity in the Soviet system.
The other way to read these findings is to take into account the broader processes of Soviet history, noting that the numbers were relatively high during politically permissive times and relatively low under conditions of repression. That such a reading may be a better one is suggested by the fact that, under Gorbachev, there has been a large increase in the number of demands for territorial transfers. A year after the emergence of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, the official geographer of the United States put the number at over 30; it has more than doubled since that time. (See the relevant maps in Soviet Nationalities Survey, no. 16, 1989, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research.)
Managing Transfers of Territory
Lacking access to the necessary archival records, both Soviet and Western analysts have devoted little attention to the process by which territorial transfers were made at any point in Soviet history. Last year, however, F. Dzhurayev, a Tajik investigator, gained access to the relevant files of the Central State Archive of the October Revolution in Moscow. His article “On the History of the National-Territorial Demarcation of Central Asia and Kazakhstan” provides a remarkable first glimpse into Soviet management of interrepublican transfers in that part of the USSR during the decade after national delimitation (Dzhurayev, op.cit.)
Shortly after national delimitation took place in 1924, Dzhurayev notes, the Presidium of the USSR Central Executive Committee found it necessary to create a commission for the resolution of territorial disputes arising between the Uzbek SSR and the RSFST and regulation of the borders between the Uzbek SSR, the Kazakh ASSR, and the Kirgiz Autonomous Oblast. Chaired by Presidium member Fedor Ugarov, the commission included one representative each from the RSFSR and the Uzbek SSR. In a parallel manner, Moscow created a commission for the settlement of Kirgiz-Yomud disputes in the border regions of Turkmenistan and the RSFSR.
These groups met behind closed doors, but they seldom reached any agreement, so that their chairmen were obliged to appeal to the Presidium numerous times, and the Presidium itself had to turn to the Council of People’s Commissars to “appropriate funds for the support of a detachment to defend the border” between the two republics.
Nevertheless, the process yielded numerous changes in virtually all the borders. Not surprisingly, the losing parties were in no hurry to obey Moscow’s orders to relinquish control. Uzbek resistance to one set of changes between 1925 and 1929 led the Central Executive Committee to adopt a resolution in August, 1929, threatening Tashkent with harsh measures if it did not comply. Despite that warning, some of the same disputes simmered on until at least 1935, when Moscow again had to intervene in conflicts between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Border Changes in the Future?
In the 1920s, no one thought the borders being laid down were necessarily permanent. Isaak Zelensky, the secretary of the Central Asian Bureau of the Party, noted that “certain reviews and corrections of borders are possible in the future, depending on the will and desire of the population” (cited in Dzhurayev, op.cit., p. 35) An increasing number of people in the USSR appear to feel the same and are looking both to the past and abroad for answers. Dzhurayev’s article will aid them in their search.