BISHKEK (TCA) — Territorial disputes in Central Asia do not allow countries of the region to take a step towards greater cooperation and increase regional integration. We are republishing the following article on the issue, written by independent researcher Ermek Baisalov and originally published by CABAR.asia:
The latest armed conflict on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was the bloodiest military clash in the region over the past 20 years. It was attended not only by local residents, but also by the military of the two countries with the use of mortar launchers, aviation, and heavy armors. As a result of the short war, dozens of people were killed on both sides and hundreds were injured, houses and other units were burned down.
Such conflicts are not uncommon in the region. There are especially many of them in the Fergana Valley, where ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and geographic lines intertwined just as colorful patterns of traditional oriental satin fabric.
On the threshold of the 30th anniversary of independence, the countries of Central Asia still have not fully resolved the basic issue – there are still no clear boundaries between the countries. Territorial disputes prevent countries from taking a step towards greater cooperation, that is not to mention regional integration.
A legacy that is not welcomed
In the mid-1920s, Moscow carried out an administrative-territorial reform in Central Asia, laying the foundation for the present territories of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The reform did not consider some features of the region: at that time, the population of Central Asia was made up of nomadic and sedentary nations – the same territory at different times of the year could differ in number and ethnic composition. The decisions made in the center led to rather controversial results: some ethnic groups were divided according to different, but still according to their Soviet republics.
It should also be noted that earlier the first generation of Muslim Bolsheviks in Central Asia in the late 1910s – early 1920s tended towards the creation of the Turkic Soviet Republic. The idea of Pan-Turkism, which the Bolsheviks considered destructive, was a threat to the young Soviet state. There is a popular belief that in some parts of Central Asia, Soviet planners (in some cases mentioning Stalin himself) adhered to the principle of “divide and rule”: they avoided creating homogeneous and compact republics, fearing that this would contribute to the growth of nationalism and separatism. However, the truth is most likely more trivial – the centralized Soviet planning proceeded, obviously, from economic and transport-logistic considerations rather than from ethno-demographic reasons.
Nevertheless, it is important that the republics within the USSR did not have any territorial problems. Administrative boundaries and legal subtleties were a formality, people and goods crossed the borders without hindrance. The problem of the borders of the region’s countries was often solved by leasing land for temporary use to each other.
On the shards of an empire
The architects of administrative change could not possibly even imagine the potential collapse of the Union in the future.
The collapse of the USSR was primarily felt by the residents of border regions and enclaves. Relatives turned out to be citizens of different independent countries, and their native places turned into a neighboring independent republic.
If we talk about enclaves in Central Asia , then only Turkmenistan is lucky in this regard – there are no enclaves and exclaves (there are no lands abroad) on the territory of this country. Kazakhstan also does not have any enclaves within the country, but there are two Kazakh exclaves in Uzbekistan. Tajikistan has a slightly similar situation – there are no enclaves in the country, but there are two Tajik exclaves in Kyrgyzstan and one in Uzbekistan. There are four Uzbek and two Tajik enclaves in Kyrgyzstan. In Uzbekistan, there is one Tajik and Kyrgyz enclave and two Kazakh enclaves (one of them is semi-enclave, no one lives in the other).
Enclaves per se, can coexist harmoniously on the territory of other states, provided that there are clear boundaries and there are no illegal barriers to the movement of people and transport for residents of both states. The main problem of the enclaves of Central Asia is hundreds of kilometers of still uncoordinated borders.
The negotiation process and the first border demarcation agreements in the region began in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Until recently, Kazakhstan in Central Asia was the most successful in the region in the sequential border-setting process. In 2001, an agreement was signed in Astana on the delimitation and demarcation of state borders between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Despite the fact that the negotiation process was relatively simple – the border between the countries passes through the desert area of the Ustyurt plateau – it was completed only in 2018, 17 years later.
The negotiations on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border were similarly long. The dialogue that began in 1999 was completed 20 years later, in 2019, with the ratification of treaties and agreements. Kazakhstan plans to end negotiations with Uzbekistan – the last meeting of the Joint Kazakh – Uzbek Demarcation Commission was held in May 2021 in Nur-Sultan.
Kazakhstan, with its authoritative leader and strong centralized government, negotiated borders in uninhabited semi-deserts and steppes for 20 years. How long should it take to resolve such issues in the most densely populated and picturesque part of Central Asia – the Fergana Valley?
Ferganistan is our common home
The Fergana Valley is divided among themselves by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Life in the fertile plain, which was once the birthplace of the Kokand Khanate, is in full swing as in a burning cauldron.
The population density is over three hundred people per square kilometer – comparable to the density in India, Japan or Sri Lanka. On satellite images of the planet at night, the Fergana Valley can be easily found by the numerous lights of villages among the sparsely populated steppes and mountains of the region.
The society in the valley is mostly patriarchal and religious, and the standard of living is low. The inhabitants are mainly engaged in agriculture and cattle breeding. Due to the dense population and geographic features, water and land resources in the Fergana Valley are insufficient. This situation in itself increases the potential for conflicts.
Poverty and high youth unemployment increase the risk of radicalization in society, leading to a chain of consequences such as organized crime and drug trafficking. That is why the Fergana Valley is not only the epicenter of territorial clashes at the borders of countries, but also a problem that, due to the interweaving of many factors, is very difficult to solve.
Uzbekistan, which borders all the countries of Central Asia, has the largest and most well-equipped army in the region. The previous leadership of the country was tough in resolving border disputes. There were cases when the Uzbek military sent armed troops to undescribed sections of borders with neighbors, for example, Kyrgyzstan. This raised the degree of relations to the limit, until diplomacy got involved. Fearing the entry of Islamic extremists into the country, Uzbekistan in 2000 unilaterally mined the border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Since the border remained conditional in many places, civilians - shepherds and children - were often blown up by mines.
It is no secret that relations between the late Uzbek leader Islam Karimov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon were strained. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, at the height of their Cold War, Tashkent stopped rail and air services and closed most of the checkpoints on the border with Tajikistan, due to Dushanbe's plans to build the Rogun hydroelectric power station. The countries most of all were in conflict over strategically important objects on the border, such as the Farhad hydroelectric power station.
The situation on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is also far from calm, especially in recent years. Conflicts between residents of border areas arise regularly, however, the bloodiest conflict in the region over the past 20 years was the events in late April - early May 2021 near the borders of the two countries. It was attended not only by local semi-partisan detachments, but also by the military of the two countries using mortar launchers, aviation, and heavy armors, as a result of which dozens of people were killed on both sides and hundreds were injured. Also, about a dozen villages were damaged, houses and other units were burned down, more than 50 thousand people were evacuated from the conflict zone.
The conflict began in the area of the Golovnoy water distribution point, which in Kyrgyzstan is considered its territory, and in Tajikistan - its own. According to the Kyrgyz authorities, Tajik officials have begun installing video cameras on a utility pole near a water distribution point (replenishing the Tortkul reservoir) in the Batken region. This angered local residents and led to a clash. At first, the parties threw stones at each other, but then the border units of the two countries joined the conflict.
According to the Kyrgyz side, the Golovnoy water distribution hub is a “strategic facility and is located on the territory of Kyrgyzstan”. In turn, Dushanbe claims that in accordance with the maps of 1924-1927 and 1989, Golovnoy "wholly belongs to the Republic of Tajikistan." In many ways, the conflict was associated with the presence of disputed sections on the border of the two countries - out of about 980 km, about 580 km were described in the process of delimitation and demarcation.
Typically, most violent incidents on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek and Kyrgyz-Tajik borders are due to disputes over infrastructure, land and water resources, and construction on disputed sites.
Due to conflicts in these areas, border guards often block checkpoints, which leads to problems. Access to the territory of neighboring countries is blocked, including for citizens of these countries living in enclaves.
A draught of change
When Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in Uzbekistan, a certain restart of relations in Central Asia took place. Under the new president, Tashkent has prioritized relations with its closest neighbors in foreign policy. The first foreign state visit of the second president of independent Uzbekistan took place not to Moscow, Washington or Beijing, but to neighboring Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
Discussions on border issues have resumed, which in itself has a positive effect on the situation. Instead of using the language of power, the parties are now using diplomacy, and are ready to go for a compromise. Thus, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan resumed negotiations on uncoordinated sections of borders - this issue has been frozen since 2000. The total length of the border between the countries is 1,650 kilometers. It is expected that soon the final documents will be signed and an end to these issues will be put.
The process of establishing the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is in the same positive phase. Negotiations on its demarcation began in 2003 and intensified in 2017. The parties have almost completed the process of demarcation of the border, which is about 2300 kilometers, and are preparing the final papers. The countries do not have any contested border areas. At the moment, the parties are preparing final documents on the site within the Turkestan region of Kazakhstan with the Syrdarya and Jizzakh regions of Uzbekistan.
Tashkent's new relations with its neighbors in the Fergana Valley - with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan - can be called a real "thaw". The Uzbek authorities have cleared the border with Tajikistan, resumed air and rail links, opened checkpoints, and agreed with Dushanbe on the controversial Farhad hydroelectric power station.
Out of the 1,300 kilometers of the Uzbek-Tajik border, 20% were controversial. Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Emomali Rahmon signed an agreement on separate sections of the border in March 2018 . Since then, the joint border demarcation commission has been meeting regularly. This was not possible a few years ago.
Quite positive changes are also taking place between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In September 2019, Tashkent, and Bishkek exchanged equal plots of land for the first time. The percentage of agreed border lines since the resumption of negotiations has risen from 84 to 92 .
The current President of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov, paid a state visit to Uzbekistan in March 2021, where he was greeted warmly, and the President of Uzbekistan said that "there has never been such a historic meeting between the countries before." On such a positive note, the head of the Kyrgyz delegation on the delimitation and demarcation of the Kyrgyz - Uzbek border (concurrently head of the State Committee for National Security) Kamchybek Tashiev paid a two-day visit to Tashkent at the end of March 2021, where government negotiations were held. The Uzbek delegation was headed by the Prime Minister of the Republic Abdulla Aripov.
After negotiations, Tashiev announced a complete solution of border issues with Uzbekistan and the absence of disputed areas. According to one of the new agreements, the dam of the Kempir-Abad reservoir in the Kara-Suu district of the Osh region was to be transferred to Uzbekistan. Kamchybek Tashiev then assured that in the future there would be no problems with the reservoir, and the local population would be able to use water from the reservoir. However, local residents opposed the transfer of the reservoir to Uzbekistan and began an indefinite action against the transfer of land to Uzbekistan on the banks of the reservoir. Tashiev arrived at a meeting with the protesters and was forced to declare that the Kempir-Abad reservoir will remain in the possession of Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, he did not specify what would happen to the lands that, according to the agreement with Uzbekistan, were to be transferred instead of Kempir-Abad, negotiations will continue.
The Kyrgyz-Tajik border line is about 970 kilometers, of which only 60% are delimited and demarcated. Until recently, there have been some encouraging signals that the situation along the common border has moved off the ground. In July 2019, the presidents of the two countries, Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Emomali Rahmon, met in the border area between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to discuss border issues. Then the meeting of the leaders was called historic and high hopes were pinned on the intensification of negotiations, however, literally two months later, another skirmish took place in the same region.
Even the global pandemic, quarantine measures and the annual Muslim fast of Ramadan do not stop territorial disputes between countries. In 2020 alone, more than a dozen violent conflicts occurred between the citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the disputed territories. As a result of the clashes, servicemen and residents of border areas were killed or injured. In a recent study by the International Republican Institute, Kyrgyz society cited neighboring Tajikistan as the country with which they have the worst relations. This is largely influenced by the situation at the borders. A colossal demand has matured in the society of the two countries to resolve border issues and build stable, conflict-free, good-neighborly relations.
A close neighbor is better than a distant relative
Over the 30 years since gaining independence, the republics of the region have formed dissimilar regimes, ways of development and views of the world. It can be said that the countries of Central Asia missed an important moment in resolving state border issues back in the 1990s. During this time, various solutions have been proposed: from attracting an external mediator to raising the standard of living in border areas, in which there will be no need for disputes.
With each new clash and bloodshed, the topic of borders becomes complex and sacred for neighboring countries. The process began to have an important political color, where leaders are in no hurry to resolve sensitive issues. Often, politicians use this topic to raise their ratings, distract from internal problems and create an image of an external enemy.
The latest armed cross-border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has brought mutual hostility from the previous local level to a national scale in both countries. Yet unlike other global territorial disputes and conflicts such as Karabakh, Kashmir or Palestine, Central Asian leaders publicly adhere to peaceful rhetoric and call for good neighborly relations. It is necessary to continue to preserve the atmosphere of friendship, mutual understanding between states, and it is important to preserve a fragile bridge between the leaderships of the countries so that border negotiations, although at times unsuccessfully, shall continue.
The countries of the region need to continue to conduct active bilateral dialogue and cooperation, while simultaneously using various regional or other platforms and mechanisms to discuss common regional and bilateral issues such as the use of water and other resources, economy and transport routes, security, etc.
Along the way with politics, it is important to try to reconcile or at least reduce the intensity of hostility and aggression not only in the border conflict areas, but also in the capitals of countries. The authorities will need to rebuild the destroyed buildings and facilities as soon as possible, to help local people return to their normal, familiar life. In the mid-term and long-term plans, do not postpone the issue of a decision on the back burner, develop and support joint initiatives, hold common cultural and humanitarian events as a "caravan of friendship", show successful stories between ethnic groups, appeal to a common history, religion, etc.
Common economic zones, open borders, or the establishment of a different supranational identity, combined with careful and balanced enclave management, can lead the Central Asian states to a situation where the issue of enclaves and the problems they create becomes less worrisome. First of all, we need political will, dialogue, and the search for difficult compromises. This is a difficult and long process, but the main thing is that there should be a desire between neighbors to resolve sensitive issues through negotiations. It is hoped that such measures can create a better environment for discussing and resolving other important issues in the region, such as water management and general security in the region.