A Deadly Conflict at the Tajik-Kyrgyz Border


Photo source: Radio Free Europe

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

There were deadly clashes at the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border in May 2021. It led to a drastic alternation in the way both countries looked at each other. Previous violence, that happened on the border, stretched back to some fifteen years. The escalations always have been localised, involving several villages on opposite side of the poorly marked or unmarked sections of the frontier.

The latest escalation had happened when groups of Tajiks were installing a camera at a water-intake station on Kyrgyz territory that distributes water to Kyrgyzstan. But Bahoviddin Bahodurzoda, the mayor of the Tajik city of Isfara, said that he was at the site, and the Tajik group was installing a camera on a post on the Tajik side of the border. It was due to a sign of the distrust that exists along the border, Bahodurzoda pointed out both countries have cameras at the water station.

By advancing near Kök-Tash, the Tajik army fired on villages in Leilek District about 100 kilometers away, suggesting the flare-up was far from spontaneous, as there is no way Tajik capital, Dushanbe could have mobilised such a quantity of military equipment so quickly. There is also evidence that the Tajik army was building trenches in advance, and had moved a sizeable force to the border, including T-72 tanks, Mi-24 helicopters, BTR -70 armoured personal carriers, and RPG-7 grenade launchers.

According to Kyrgyz media, Tajik units attacked border posts and took hostages while Tajik locals used hunting weapons to shoot at Kyrgyz vehicles traveling on the Osh-Isfana road. Kyrgyz special forces managed to make some advances and took one Tajik border post, but it was far from a Kyrgyz military victory.

The fighting took place over two days. In total, more than fifty people—mostly civilians—were killed on both sides, with over 300 wounded. The Kyrgyz authorities evacuated more than 51,000 people from the conflict zone. Locals burned the homes and villages of the opposing sides, and were happy to upload evidence to social media.

After several false starts, Bishkek and Dushanbe eventually agreed a ceasefire.

However, they are unlikely to be able to overcome all their differences. It’s neither the economic nor the political moment for compromise. Japarov will not dampen his nationalist rhetoric, while Rahmon is planning to hand power to his son: not a good time for concessions.

The fighting on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border at the end of April 2021 was unprecedented in scale, but not entirely unexpected: since the beginning of 2020, there have been seven military incidents. In previous years, such as 2014, there were as many as thirty.

At present, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have about seventy unresolved border disputes. Of their 971-kilometer shared border, only 519 kilometres are properly delineated. Conflicts usually arise around the Kyrgyz villages of Ak-Sai, Kök-Tash, and Samarkandyk; the Tajik villages of Chorku and Surkh; and the Tajik exclave of Vorukh that is linked to “mainland” Tajikistan by a single road. Bishkek and Dushanbe tend to judge what belongs to them by using whatever Soviet-era map allocates them more territory. Most clashes between the inhabitants of border villages are limited to stone-throwing.

The populist nationalist rhetoric that helped Japarov come to power is one of the reasons for the recent standoff. In interactions with Moscow and Beijing, Bishkek is cordial, but that cannot be said of its relations with other Central Asian countries.

According to Temur Umarov’s blog in Carnegie Moscow Centre, the clouds of war have been gathering over the region for a long time, and the decision to embark on military action was taken at the highest level.

When Tashiev met his Tajik counterpart to discuss the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in 2021, Tashiev made another big announcement.

He gave Tajikistan a choice: either commit to renouncing claims to territory around Vorukh, or exchange Vorukh for border land of the same geographical size somewhere else.

The aggressiveness of the new Kyrgyz government was a gift for the aging and increasingly unpopular Tajik President Rahmon. Within a few days, Rahmon had made a visit to Vorukh, where he pledged that “Vorukh will remain part of Tajikistan.”

Notably, no third country assumed the role of lead mediator. Like the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow said it was closely studying the situation. While Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev held phone calls with the presidents of the warring sides, Kazakhstan and Iran offered limited help, and China—the biggest economic partner of both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—remained silent.

The fact that none of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s international partners were eager to take up the role of mediator is a worrying sign. The chances of the two sides being able to work something out themselves are slim.

The biggest winner from this escalation has been Rahmon. This little war demonstrated his regime is still capable of mobilising Tajikistan in the face of danger, and a popularity boost will help him in the upcoming transfer of power to his son.

In contrast, as Japarov has an already damaged reputation, he seems incapable of fulfilling his pre-election promises, and suffers further as a result of the fighting. His image as a valiant nationalist is making his foreign policy more and more erratic.

Temur Omarov wrote further in the blog for Moscow Carnegie Centre: ‘For the moment, China and Russia are too powerful for him to risk a confrontation, but his Central Asian neighbours are squarely in the firing line. The border fighting has shown that populist statements can have unpredictable consequences, particularly in a region where politicians do not shy away from nationalism. And Japarov cannot rely on help from outside: nobody is prepared to take a risk for him when he looks unlikely to last much longer as president.’


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