Recent border clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajik troops, which have thus far claimed the lives of over 50 civilians and military personnel, are the latest skirmishes in what seems to be an eternal pattern of sovereignty-related disputes between the two Central Asian nations. There is a case to be made that the problems in the region, driven predominantly by each states’ respective claims to land and water resources, can be attributed to the legacy of both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s historical position within the Soviet Union.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly established independent sovereign republics of Central Asia were free to chart their own course in domestic and geopolitical affairs, rid of the constraints long imposed on them by Moscow. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of the region, independence was nothing more than a trigger for renewed ethnic conflict, driven mainly by the new states’ disputes over water and land, particularly within the densely populated Fergana Valley region.
Almost 70 years previously, Soviet delimitation planners established several autonomous republics and oblasts across the Soviet Union. They did so in accordance with Josef Stalin’s 1913 visionary assumption that a nation should comprise “a community of people” with “a common language, territory, economic life, and common culture”. Following several territorial revisions and titular adjustments in the early Soviet era, the Soviet Socialist Republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were eventually established as ‘homes’ for the respective Kyrgyz and Tajik ethnicities within the greater Soviet state.
However, whether unable or unwilling to, the Soviet demarcation strategy did not fully take into account the vast array and relatively random geographical spread of ethnic groups that resided in the Fergana Valley. As a result, several ethnic groups found themselves positioned outside of their ‘home’ republics, with both Tajik and ethnic Uzbek communities existing in the form of enclaves and exclaves within the Kyrgyz nation, and vice versa.
Some historians perceive this artificial imposition of territorial boundaries as a deliberate attempt to forgo united nationalist sentiments against Soviet rule by burdening majority ethnic republics with significant rival minorities and erasing what each ethnic group or tribe would perceive to be their traditional territory. Despite the plausibility of this argument, the non-existent internal border and ease of movement between each republic during the Soviet era meant that hostilities between differing ethnicities were, for the most part, more or less minimal.
It was only after independence in 1991, when minority communities and enclaves found themselves estranged from their ethnic ‘home’ nation and state boundaries emerged as an issue that the newly empowered governments had to contend with, that hostilities and ethnic tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan came to a boil. The uncertainties concerning the territorial boundaries between the two states are exemplified through their current orientation – around a third of today’s 984km border is disputed. As such, land and water resources are hotly contested by both governments and ordinary civilians alike.
In recent history, border skirmishes between the two sides have been confined to local clashes, with occasional gunfire breaking out between villages facing off against each other across the disputed border, often provoked by water-related issues. Usually, these clashes are quickly resolved by higher authorities, with local or regional officials quickly on hand to quell unrest and allow for a tentative peace between the conflicting parties.
Between the 28th April and 1st May 2021, hostilities between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were renewed. This latest incident, widely condemned as the most significant escalation of violence between the two countries since independence in 1991, was unsurprisingly driven by a local dispute over water management. Heavy clashes took place around the relatively arable Tajik exclave of Vorukh, isolated from the Tajik mainland and awkwardly located within and entirely surrounded by what is a considerably arid region of Kyrgyzstan.
Local Tajik demands for increased control over jurisdiction of water resources and a subsequent installation of CCTV systems overlooking the Kyrgyz-claimed Golovnoy water facility by Tajik forces is reported to have angered both Kyrgyz border personnel and civilian residents alike. The sporadic shooting and stone throwing between the two sides that followed is then reported to have escalated into a more intense affair, with Tajik troops actively launching several coordinated incursions into sovereign Kyrgyz territory at various points along the winding border.
Despite the heavy military involvement on both sides, it was ordinary civilians who bore the brunt of the fighting, with vast infrastructural damage inflicted on numerous settlements along either side of the border, with thousands of residents evacuated or displaced, resulting in what will be huge economic and social cost to what are already the two most impoverished nations in the region.
A Lasting Peace?
By 3rd May, 2021, both sides completed the withdrawal of their forces after eventually adhering to a ceasefire that had initially been breached several times. Amid the aftermath of violence of destruction, there are concerns as to whether this particular incident was simply a continuation of the historical trend of low key skirmishes or the beginning of a wider, more sinister period of relations between the two countries.
Whilst the scale of military equipment and personnel utilised during the short conflict could certainly be seen as a prelude to all-out war between the two United Nations members, it is unlikely that either side could afford to engage in a wider conventional military conflict. However, whilst significant portions of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border remain undemarcated, the possibility of future conflict, regardless of its ferocity, remains squarely open.
In a region that Russia would consider to be within its sphere of influence, there is every chance that Moscow will play a defining role in mediating a peaceful accord between the two nations. It is certainly within Kremlin interests to encourage harmonious relations between President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe and newly elected President Sadyr Japarov in Bishkek, both of whom preside over states friendly to Russia as members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a security force akin to NATO that, in theory, could intervene in the event of large-scale conflict.
There will, however, be concerns among many in Bishkek as to the relationship between President Putin and his fellow authoritarian and Tajik counterpart Rahmon. The Tajik president was pictured in Moscow for this week’s 76th Victory Day celebrations, the only foreign leader to accompany Putin to the event, which could arguably hint at a Russian pivot in favour of Dushanbe.
It is not just Russia that has a vested interest in Kyrgyz-Tajik affairs, either. Chinese influence in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has grown considerably over the past 25 years, with Bishkek and Dushanbe severely indebted to a Beijing government that continues to pursue its Belt and Road Initiative across Central Asia, often at the behest of Russia’s sphere of influence.
Ultimately, whilst the Cold War-era gerrymandering of ethnic borders has continued to ferment violence in Central Asia, it is likely that the political and economic risk of major bloodshed will, for now, be constrained. Instead, ethnic-related direct combat may take a back seat whilst a Cold War-style battle for influence and soft power, with Russia facing off to Chinese challenges in their own backyard, plays out.
Blog written by Lewis Walters for Global Risks Insights. Original posting at: https://globalriskinsights.com/2021/06/kyrgyz-tajik-relations-in-the-fergana-valley-trapped-in-a-soviet-era-labyrinth/