The legacy of the Soviet presence in Central Asia is still visible today on many levels. One of the important changes that took place after the USSR’s collapse was the transformation of the administrative boundaries of Soviet republics into international borders. Consequently, what were once notional lines on a map became physical barriers to the movement of people and goods, and competing territorial claims became the source of many inter-state disputes after 1991.

The border demarcation that the Soviets conducted in the region in the 1920s and 1930s and its effects on the state disputes generated after the USSR collapsed have been the focus of previous research. However, few studies have concentrated on the Soviet practice of leasing land and resources among Central Asian states as well as the disputes arising out of these “asset swaps” once independent states emerged in the region. This article will argue that the consequences of land leasing have been equally responsible for the creation of conflict among the Central Asian states as the more “traditional” border disputes centered on historical rights to certain territories.

This paper will first look at the initial border demarcation under the Soviet state and will also analyze the emergence of land leases between the republics of the region. Secondly, the paper will briefly assess the more “traditional” border disputes in Central Asia and their place in the post-Soviet legal context. Thirdly, two cases will be presented in order to analyze the general conflict potential of the land leases: first, the lease by the Russian Federation of the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan will serve as an example of a successful lease concluded after the breakup of the Soviet Union, while the Uzbek claim over the village of Bagys, leased from Kazakhstan, and the refusal to return the village back to Kazakhstan, even after strong protests from the local population, will serve as a problematic instance of land lease where local unrest forced the authorities to settle the issue. By focusing on other instances of territorial disputes outside the usual framework of border demarcations and historic territorial claims, this article hopes to shed light on other possible ways of addressing and solving territorial uncertainties in a region where population mobility and border security are still at odds.

Throughout this article the term “land leases” will be used in a more general sense than its common meaning of “renting” suggests. In Soviet practice, leases were used to grant access not only to land, but to strategic assets located on a territory. Such assets included: military and scientific facilities (as in Baikonur), population (such the village of Bagys in Kazakhstan leased to Uzbekistan), military farms (the village of Turkestanets in Uzbekistan), and industrial facilities and gas fields (leased by Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan) to name a few. It should be acknowledged that in some isolated cases, land was indeed leased qua land, e.g. as pasture for cattle herds (in the case of a Kyrgyz lease from Uzbekistan) (International Crisis Group 2002). However, in the vast majority of cases cited here, a land lease also includes additional facilities and installations.