Sunday, May 30, 2021

Soviet Borders in Central Asia Failed to Consider Impact of Nomadic Groups, Baysalov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 28 – Moscow’s national delimitation of Central Asia in the 1920s suffered from many defects, Ermek Baysalov says; but one of its most serious shortcomings was the failure of the Bolsheviks to consider now nomadic groups changed the ethnic make up of the populations of particular places over the course of each year.

            The Soviets drew lines and promoted linguistic developments to form separate nations out of a population lacking these characteristics in the past. That effort was not always successful, but it laid the basis for the borders and border problems that exist up to now, the Bishkek researcher says.

            But at the time, the Bolsheviks utterly failed to consider one of the specific features of the area: the continuing presence of large numbers of nomads. As a result of their existence, “one and the same territory at various times of the year could vary by number and ethnic composition” (

            Nomads from one nation often moved onto territories the Soviets defined as belonging to another for part of the year and then moved back, a situation which meant that the nomads and their descendants viewed places they lived in for only part of the year as theirs given that they lived in their “own” national territories only part of the year as well.

            Such historical memories matter and continue to divide the region, blocking efforts at broader cooperation needed for modernization, Baysalov says. Consequently, it is important to go back and examine what happened a century ago if one is to have any hope of overcoming border disputes now.

            In the wake of the 1917 revolution, many in Central Asia wanted to form a Turkic Soviet Republic, but Moscow opposed what it saw as a pan-Turkic threat to Soviet rule. It thus proceeded with a policy that some continue to describe as “divide and rule,” separating peoples along linguistic and cultural lines to prevent them from coming together.

            The truth of the matter, the Kyrgyz researcher says, is “more trivial: “the centralized Soviet planning system started obviously from economic and transportation-logistical considerations than from ethno-demographic ones.” That meant that borders weren’t considered all that important and that territories were shifted from one republic to another in Soviet times.

            Baysalov provides a review of the border clashes which have taken place in Central Asia over the last 30 years since the countries there became independent. According to him, the chief sources of problems are in ethnically mixed areas like the Fergana valley, the enclaves all but Turkmenistan have in other countries, and the politically febrile capital cities.

            The Central Asian countries missed a chance to fix their borders quickly in the 1990s and now have more neuralgic problems, the researcher says. But “unlike the case in many other territorial disputes and conflicts such as Qarabagh, Kashmir or Palestine, the leaders of Central Asia publicly have remained attached to peaceful rhetoric.”

            That provides some basis for hope that they will be able to negotiate settlements and accept the idea of trans-border economic zones, open borders or even the re-articulation of “super-national identities” and thus end this troubled period by taking all the various factors involved into account.

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