A border conflict resolved – without war

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A war that could have happened, didn't. The presidents of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan peacefully signed a compromise border delimitation agreement in September. Instead of suffering from a major conflict, at the expense of thousands of lives, opportunities for economic and social development in Central Asia have been sustained. The United States should take note.

Kazakhstan could prove to be a significant player in the future of American energy policy. Its proven reserves are 15 billion barrels of oil, and Kazakhstan's promising potential reserves may make it one of the top five world producers over the next decade. Also, large contingents of US soldiers are currently based in Uzbekistan, which has served as one of the main staging grounds for US military and humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. Peace in both countries is imperative for the Caspian energy project and US military aid in Afghanistan to go forward.

Since their independence more than 10 years ago, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have had disagreements about multiple locations along their 1,391 mile border. The final border agreement signed last month by Presidents Nazarbayev and Karimov achieved serious (although to some, painful) compromise through the mutual transfer of territories and a number of villages that each side considers to be its own. The process continues with both presidents trying to rally support for the peace and prevention of war.

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This border compromise illustrates that disagreements over land ownership do not have to erupt into war. Domestic opposition groups in many regions have often used peace agreements as a means to launch their own bid for power by riling constituents and undermining support for the ruling party. And, there are many instances of political leaders using border disputes as a means of saber rattling against their neighbor and increase their own political popularity.

Since the Soviet breakup and the independence of the Muslim states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, Western media reports and policy reactions have tended to focus on the negative occurrences in the region. While these states have a long way to go in their political development and reform, few observers have pointed out that the leaders of Central Asia have displayed commitment to not letting their disputes over water resources and border delimitations develop into violent conflict.

The example of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan reminds us that history does not have to lead to conflict when prudent leaders are in the driver's seat and political entrepreneurs from the opposition do not choose – or rather do not have the opportunity – to undermine the process by attacking the ruling leaders. Regional wars in recent years in other locations have been ignited over similar (or even smaller) pieces of disputed land.

The US is quick to strain at gnats in the developing democratic systems of Central Asian states, while being strangely silent on the oppressive acts of its allies who rule by monarchy and deny their peoples the freedom of movement, freedom of expression, or even a pretense of participation in political processes.

It is time for Western governments to recognize the good job the new states of Central Asia have been doing in preventing wars among themselves in this difficult period of transition.

We must temper our criticism by also pointing out their significant accomplishments in the field of peace, and deepen our cooperation with the states of Central Asia. US troops now stationed in Central Asia will probably be there for a long haul.

For the US to have a long-term successful relationship with the host states, it must learn to serve as a partner in the improving of society, and not as a lofty critic standing on the sidelines.

• Brenda Shaffer is research director at the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University and author of 'Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity' (MIT Press).

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