Staunton, February 25 — When the USSR disintegrated in 1991, the United States and other Western countries and with the support of the leaderships of the former Soviet republics, including the Russian Federation, insisted that the administrative borders of the union republics should become without change the international borders of the new states.
The West did so out of fear that any border changes would open a Pandora’s box. And the leaders of the former Soviet republics did so because in most cases, the border issue was far from the most pressing one they faced and because, again in most cases, they recognized that challenging the borders would land them in difficulties with other countries.
Many even came to believe that these borders were both natural and had seldom been changed, neither of which was the case. These borders had been changed more than 200 times during the Soviet period, and they were in no way “natural” except when they abutted a river or a sea.
This commitment to the stability of borders in the post-Soviet region had both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, it prevented or at least put off an issue that could have torn many of these countries apart. But on the negative, it meant that in discussions of what came to be called “frozen conflicts,” border changes were off the table.
That had the unintended result of keeping many of these conflicts going far longer than might have been the case if territorial adjustments had been made in the immediate wake of the disintegration of the USSR when the situation was more fluid and exacerbating tensions within these countries even if it helped to minimize them between the new states.
But the idea of border stability began to break down a decade ago, with Russia’s military actions against Georgia leading to the partially recognized independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with conflicts along borders in Central Asia, and with Vladimir Putin’s drive for regional amalgamation within the Russian Federation, a push that reopened the question.
Now with the Russian Anschluss of Crimea and Moscow’s continuing intervention in southeastern Ukraine — and despite the Kremlin’s frequent assertions that it supports the territorial integrity of that country – other countries and indeed parts of countries see border changes as having been legitimated and are making their own proposals.
An example of one such proposal that is in itself small but that may have enormous consequences down the road was reported yesterday by a Kazakhstan outlet. According to that news agency’s Marina Aimbetova, Russia’s Omsk Region has proposed two variants of a border swap with Kazakhstan.
Ten days ago, Erik Sultanov, the head of the Northern Kazakhstan Oblast, made a visit to Omsk, during which Omsk Governor Viktor Nazarenko proposed a territorial swap of approximately 2400 hectares in each direction to simplify life for border residents who otherwise must cross the international border several times a day.
He argued that this would not be difficult as most of the territory involved has no population centers and is owned by the two governments rather than by private persons. But the issue is obviously very sensitive: Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying that it had heard nothing about this idea at an official level.
“Questions concerning the demarcation of the state border between the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation are in the exclusive competence of the joint Kazakhstan-Russian commission on issues of demarcation of the state border,” the ministry said, adding that it would “carefully study” any proposals that the Russian side might make.
There are few borders in the former Soviet space where the borders are unproblematic, either because of the intermixture of populations left over from Soviet times or because of national claims. And now that Putin has opened this Pandora’s box, it will be worth watching what comes out and, also as in case of Pandora, what if anything will be left behind.