The situation in Central Asia seems to have been getting more and more complicated over the past years. The region has undergone a number developments that indicate uncertain stability and sustainability, which requires more caution and closer observation of the governing interactions in that important geographical spot. The fall of Afghanistan, the American withdrawal and the Taliban control of the state raise queries about the future of the region, taking into consideration the doubts over Taliban’s capability of running the country.
The tensions over borders in the region have had impacts on security and stability, especially that these tensions have existed for decades without solutions. This could be seen in the eruption of military clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan on 13 September, which are the deadliest in two years, where the death toll was high on both sides. Relevant to that are the border clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which sparked again on 14 September. This puts regional countries to the test to show their capabilities of overcoming challenges, or alternatively, remain in conflicts that may burst out of control even though they had been contained in the past.
The Tajikistan-Kirgizstan conflict is a prolonged and renewed one that is hard to reach a resolution for, a resolution that prevents its recurrence. This is mainly due to its tangled nature and the lack of ability of the parties to reach long-term understandings that take the two countries to stability and everlasting peace. In this context, we can outline the conflict, its reasons and its potential outcomes as follows:
1) Mutual Accusations and Contradicting Narratives: Ever since the very first moment of the military clashes, the two sides have exchanged accusations of sparking the fight, even narratives from one side looked contradicting. Each characterized its actions as reactions to the other’s aggression.
Kyrgyzstan announced that Tajikistan attacked the borders and targeted buildings and infrastructure in Batken border province, which had witnessed a number of clashes over the past few years, which led to declaring a state of emergency as well as evacuating nearly 136,000 citizens. While on the other hand, Tajik authorities accused Kyrgyzstan border guards of shelling a border camp and a number of settlements and infrastructure, as well as mobilizing troops and weapons to near the borders which seemed to be preparations for war.
2) Severe and Broad Escalation: The current confrontation between the two nations can be describes as tough, especially that heavy weaponry such as tanks, artillery and mortars have been deployed, which explains the increased death tolls on both sides (over 100 deaths). This figure indicates the intensity and broadness of the clashes compared to previous rounds between them.
For instance, April 2021 clashes when 50 people were killed were considered the deadliest, thus the current battles are characterized as brutal which left double the death toll of 2021, in addition to the destruction of infrastructure.
The secretary of the Kyrgyzstan Security Council, Marat Imankulov, announced that the damages due to clashes with Tajikistan reached $17 million during the first three days of confrontation.
3) The Soviet Heritage Complex: Demarcation of the borders between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is considered the main cause for sparking conflicts between them. This prolonged and cumulative dispute has been inherited from the Soviet Union. Back in 1937, the borders have been symbolically demarcated within the Soviet Union, then, following the fall of the Union in 1991, that symbolic border demarcation became a fact. Ever since, dispute between the two countries erupted over each side’s control of some areas.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan share 980 km of borders, where control over tens of adjacent areas is still disputed. In 2002, negotiations over border demarcation commenced, they did reach a resolution for only 660 km, while the rest remain undefined, that is almost 30 percent of the borders.
This issue has been a catalyst for tensions between citizens and armed forces in both countries. In general, borders demarcation is a serious issue in Central Asia. Among the 5 countries, only Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan could avoid the dilemma over borders with their neighbors. In 2000, Turkmenistan has signed an agreement with Uzbekistan, and in 2001, signed a similar one with Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan also has signed an agreement with Uzbekistan in 2002 and with both Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in 2001.
4) Exacerbation of Conflicts over Resources: In connection with ongoing conflict over borders demarcation, another dilemma arose over sharing resources following the separation of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan from the Soviet Union. Administrative border lines as well as legal regulations between the two states used to be hidden to a large extent under the Soviet Union umbrella. Travel and transportation across the borders used to be smooth, away from all sorts of complications. Also, the right of pursuing natural and water resources was commonly shared prior to 1991. Now the current borders between them have imposed different restriction on how resources can be utilized, which has exacerbated conflicts as a result of the complications of shared resources management, especially water, roads, agricultural lands as well as pastures.
The military clashes in April 2021 which were described as the deadliest prior to the most recent ones, are an indication of increased tension between the two countries over resources. The 2021 clashes erupted over water sharing on the borders in Batken province, when Kyrgyzstan authorities carried out some maintenance and renovation works in the water pumping station, the Tajik installed surveillance cameras to monitor how Kyrgyzstan consumes shared resources, which led to clashes between civilians, soon both sides’ armed forces were involved.
Hence, the conflict over resources and agricultural lands is deep; resulting from fake borders inherited from the Soviet Union.
For instance, Forokh area is a clear example of the dilemma, as it is a part of Tajikistan, but surrounded by Kyrgyzstan lands. On the other hand, Fargona valley is another geographical complication as it is shared between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which created a competition between the three over land and economic interests.
Thus, we can comprehend the predicament of laying out borders by the former Soviet Union, which did not consider the possibility of separation of those Central Asia territories into sovereign states between which border conflicts erupted following the fall of the Union.
The Next Day
There are scenarios that shape interactions, hence, draw a picture of the next day in light of escalation between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. They can be seen as follows:
First Scenario: Containing the Conflict: The two parties could –supposedly- cement Ceasefire and regain peace all along the border line, which leads to containing the escalation. This scenario is supported by a number of factors:
First) Border conflict history between the two countries tells that previous escalations have always been temporary, and rapidly contained. Reports tell that nearly 230 border accidents had taken place over the past two decades, according to Tajikistan Deputy Foreign Minister Sadik Emumi. However, despite the increased number of those clashes, they have always been containable, and never turned into a comprehensive war. They have not either been as tense as the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over “Nagorno-Karabakh” region.
Second) Russia’s influence remains crucial, especially in the present time, as Moscow rushes for peace and calming tensions in this region which it considers as domain of its historic hegemony. Thus, Russia’s mediation efforts can contain the situation in case of exploding the fight especially that Russia has a strong influence inside the two countries, and still keeps its military bases in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Moreover, Russia’s attempts to reform the New World Order necessitate it to play an active role within its regional domain and stabilize military as well as security situations, as the burst of a vast confrontation may cause distractions to Moscow’s efforts in its war against Ukraine, hence, it will work on avoiding that undesired confrontation.
Third) Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s realization of the cost of an open military confrontation, is a reason for both to reach a resolution, despite the ignition of the conflict from time to time. This could be seen in the ceasefire decision by both parties after two days of fighting. Even though some minor violations happen, ceasefire remains coherent, as no major clashes have been witnessed. This led the two parties to sign a peace protocol on 19 September, which stipulated the stopping of aggression and withdrawing troops and military equipment from the borders and placing them back in their original locations, in addition to joint observation of borders and conducting a comprehensive investigation into the clashes that took place from 14 to 16 September.
Second Scenario: Difficulty of a Comprehensive Resolution: This path proposes the possibility of reaching a resolution and border demarcation.
However, it may not be that easy in light of lack of trust as well as lack of willing to accept compromises between them, which can be inferred from the difficulty of reaching a settlement over the past 20 years where borders demarcation negotiations started in 2002, and a joint committee had been formed in 2006, but was unable to establish understandings for solving the dispute. Hundreds of meetings have been held without achieving progress. This explains the difficulty of reaching a resolution for the conflict especially that the issue of exchanging lands –as a proposed factor for settling the dispute- has been rejected under pressure of a populist sentiment from both sides.
Conclusion: The border conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is complicated and difficult to resolute. However, the possibility of renewed clashes from time to time does not necessarily mean an open war especially that containing the situation has always been possible.
The timing of the recent clash has added a new dimension to the conflict as it took place amid the Russian war on Ukraine and the noted Russian retreat in some areas. In addition, it happened simultaneously with the Shanghai Summit which seemed to be promoting a new world order that eliminates single power dominance, and puts foundations for a multi-polar world.
Furthermore, the re-eruption of the military aggression between Armenia and Azerbaijan has stimulated the doubts that the west is sparking all those tensions aiming to confuse the Russian calculations. However, this hypothesis remains doubtful.