Guarding the Border of the World’s Largest Landlocked Country

By Colin Berlyne046_049_Edge_08_Patrolling_Border_Page_1_Image_0001

Border security is a huge challenge for Kazakhstan and the scope of the task is enormous. The world’s ninth largest nation is entirely landlocked and has 12,012 kilometres of borders with Russia, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. But in the 20 years since the country achieved independence from the Soviet Union, it has risen to the challenge.

“Two decades have passed in the work of creating and developing an army that is capable of solving multiple complex tasks to ensure military security in all circumstances,” Kazakhstan’s Defense Minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov said.

Kazakhstan has a population of only 16 million people, so it does not have the numbers to raise a large conscript army to tightly control its borders. On top of that, the country’s multi-vector diplomatic strategy towards the rest of the world established by President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been based on open borders and maximizing trade, investment and good relations with the rest of the world. But the policy has been successful both for the benefit of Kazakhstan's development and limiting the attraction of external threats. Kazakhstan’s border security forces work particularly closely with those of its neighbors in their ongoing struggle to combat international terrorism, religious extremism, separatism and drug trafficking in the Eurasian region. They also work together on nonproliferation issues concerning weapons of mass destruction weapons.

The per capita income of Kazakh citizens has also grown 12-fold in the two decades of national independence. Kazakhstan has developed a tolerant, stable and open society, embracing the best of culture, science and technology from the West and the Asian Northeast while expanding its civilizational and spiritual ties also with the Middle East, Russia and other former Soviet republics. That free market, open society policy has also helped solve the problem of border security. The threat of extreme Islamist and other terrorism from domestic sources has been minimal since national independence was achieved in 1991 (until the country was hit by a spate of terrorist acts046_049_Edge_08_Patrolling_Border_Page_2_Image_0001 in 2011 with which the government has since dealt effectively). And Kazakhstan has not suffered the major ethnic clashes or outbursts of violence that have shaken neighboring countries in Central Asia. It has also escaped any threat of civil war and sustained infiltration by terrorists that cost scores of thousands of lives in the five-year civil war in Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997. When individual extremists have tried to enter Kazakhstan and set up extremist cells and movements, their efforts have failed. But Kazakhstan’s leaders know they cannot afford to be complacent, as the events of 2011 have shown. “They know it’s a challenge. They have to keep their eyes open in every direction and prioritize where they put their (security) resources,” Thomas Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats assessment programme at the Center for Security and International Studies, a prominent Washington think tank, told EdgeKz magazine.

Regional Cooperation Key to Border Security

A major contribution to meeting the challenge of safeguarding Kazakhstan’s enormous borders across the traditionally-open steppe of the Eurasian heartland has come from the nation’s embrace of the region’s security structure.

Together with Russia, Kazakhstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and, together with Russia, China and three Central Asian states, Kazakhstan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Kazakhstan regularly participates in annual SCO joint military exercises and security initiatives, especially against the threat of transnational terrorism and drug smuggling in the region. “Kazakhstan also works with the CSTO and its other member states to improve the interaction of forces and means of the system of collective security: These include forms and methods of joint actions and improving the CSTO joint air defense system and its regional components,” Kazakh Defense Minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov said ( WAS THERE AN INTERVIEW? IF YES, LEAVE YOUR TEXT. IF NOT, JUST SAY ‘said’).

Dzhaksybekov also noted that “Kazakhstan and its CSTO allies also make united efforts to combat international terrorism, religious extremism, separatism and drug trafficking in the Eurasian region. They also work together on non-proliferation issues concerning weapons of mass destruction.” The CSTO and SCO structures are crucial in assisting Kazakhstan meet its border security challenge.

The Kazakhs recognize that international cooperation is also key to maintaining their security at the heart of the world’s largest land mass. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that Kazakhstan has welcomed major regional security cooperation and coordination organizations to locate their headquarters in the country. The Kazakhstan-initiated 24-nation Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), for example, is located in Almaty. It includes a highly specialized secretariat that focuses on a whole gamut of security related issues, including cross border cooperation. The Central Asian Regional Information & Coordination Centre (CARICC), which is established under the UN auspices and fights the scourge of drug trafficking is also based in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.

Central Asia lies on the main smuggling routes of opium and heroin from Afghanistan to the markets of Russia and Western Europe. The countries of Central Asia, and CARICC in particular, are on the frontline of fighting that particularly virulent form of transnational crime. And the Kazakh government strongly supports the organisation’s efforts. CARICC is a classic example of the need for international and regional cooperation in addressing transborder security and criminal threats that no single country has the scope or resources to tackle. Supported by the United Nations, CARICC was founded on March 22, 2009 and helps coordinate the efforts of the governments and security forces of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Its headquarters in Almaty opened on December 9, 2009.

The organisation already has a global reach: Afghanistan, Austria, Canada, Germany, Finland, France, Italy, Pakistan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, Interpol and the Southeast European Law Enforcement Center (SELEC) all enjoy observer status with it. CARICC works to co-ordinate the efforts of its individual member-states to fight illicit drug trafficking at the regional level. It creates cooperation mechanisms between the relevant police, border enforcement and military forces of its member-states. It helps to organise and carry out joint international operations and investigations.

Perhaps the organisation’s most important role is to collect, record, analyse and exchange information between different forces in the execution of the battle on drugs. CARICC’s crucial mission confirms that in the 21st century world, Kazakhstan’s ongoing commitment to maintaining its border security is part of a much wider mission to combat the forces of extremism and transnational crime in Central Asia. 

Each of Five Borders Offers Unique Challenges

What could be more difficult to defend than the heart of Eurasia, particularly if you are the largest landlocked country in the world with a policy of open borders and free markets? But through a combination of diplomacy, strategy and preparedness, the job gets done.

The key to the success of Kazakhstan’s border security policies lies in the recognition that each border with its five neighboring nations is different in nature, even when the geographical conditions may be similar. Therefore, each border represents a different kind of challenge and must be dealt with differently.

The border with Russia alone is a colossal 6,846 kilometres – more than half of Kazakhstan’s total land frontiers. However, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have just formed a Customs Union (CU) and Single Economic Space (SES), and this effectively removed the challenge of preventing smuggling across the country’s longest border. Businesses now have easy and legal access to the strong and emerging Kazakh economy.

Although relations are excellent with China, the challenges on that 1,533-kilometre border are the opposite of those with Russia. Smuggling is not a problem with Russia as both nations are members of the same trading blocs. But it is a growing challenge on the border of China. There,a far-reaching new communications and transportation infrastructure has been created and trade between the two countries is booming. But because Kazakhstan is a member of the CU and SES and China is not, smugglers have a strong temptation to illegally transport goods across it into the Central Asian nation and beyond.

Kazakhstan’s 1,051 kilometres of land borders with Kyrgyzstan present a different, but equally complex series of challenges. Relations between the two countries are excellent and large numbers of Kyrgyz migrant workers cross it to work in prosperous Kazakhstan and then send their earnings back to their families as remittances.Both countries welcome this traffic. It brings needed income and foreign currency into Kyrgyzstan and helps defuse social and economic tensions in that small country. However, Kazakh authorities have to remain alert to prevent extremists, from further beyond in the region, from crossing the borderto spread their radical ideologies. This concern has grown over the past two years after fierce ethnic riots between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks shook the Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabad in the summer of 2010.046_049_Edge_08_Patrolling_Border_Page_2_Image_0004

However, the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border is essentially one of hope and optimism. It is the road for scores of thousands of Kyrgyz migrant workers who find better-paying work and growing job skills in Kazakhstan’s booming economy to support their families at home. And it is also witnessing ambitious joint hydroelectric power-sharing projects that will benefit the economies of both nations.

Turkmenistan has the shortest land border with Kazakhstan, a mere 379 kilometers, and the Turkmens maintain tight control over their side of it. Relations between both countries are good, so there is little concern about problems on it.With Uzbekistan, relations are proper rather than warm, but both governments share the same concern that Islamist extremists who in the past have tried to destabilize Uzbekistan – the most populous country in Central Asia – will attempt to cross it in significant numbers. Since Uzbekistan has the longest border with Kazakhstan of any Central Asian nation – 2,203 kilometres – the concern in Astana and Tashkent is understandable.

With all its neighbors Kazakhstan follows the principles of its multi-vector diplomacy strategy. The country’s leaders recognize that their nation’s best security lies in constructive cooperation on every side.