Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border clashes: Unaddressed problems of the past 30 years

by Meerim Egemberdieva

The border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan started on the 28th of April 2021 when a group of Tajik citizens installed a water surveillance camera in the border area. The Kyrgyz side claims that the Tajiks illegally entered Kyrgyz territory. The Tajik side claims that the group stayed on Tajik territory. Following this dispute, villagers from both sides of the border started throwing stones at each other. Later, these border quarrels escalated to a clash involving heavy artillery, mortar, and gunfire. Both sides blamed each other for starting the armed conflict. As a result of the clash, at least 40 Kyrgyz citizens and 20 Tajik citizens died. More than 200 people were injured and over 50.000 Kyrgyz people were internally displaced.

Small-scale fights between the people or the border guards at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border are not unusual. Often, villagers block each other’s roads, block water passages and engage in small fights. Yet, despite this constant, low-level violence, Kyrgyz people go to Tajik hospitals, shopping centers, and bazaars and the same is true for Tajik people. Thus, despite their struggles the relations between the communities on both sides of the border are intense.

Cacahuate, Russian translation by Peter Fitzgerald (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Central_Asia.svg), https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode

The problem is the border. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, both states encountered problems in border delimitation and demarcation. “Kyrgyz and Tajik communities had common property rights to access and use natural resources under the system of land tenure based on property rights backed up by Soviet state authorities,” writes Gulzana Kurmanalieva, Ph.D. fellow of the EU, Central Asia, and the Caucasus in the International System (EUCACIS) Programme. About 471 kilometers of the 971-kilometer Kyrgyz-Tajik border are disputed. From 1991 to 2015 over 70 incidents were reported. In 2019 only, more than 12 incidents happened on the border areas. The reasons behind the conflicts are mostly over the access and use of natural resources such as water, land and infrastructure.

The delimitation of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border has been an issue for decades. Both states made several attempts to solve these issues. After each conflict, authorities from both sides met but pressing challenges have been left unresolved and lead to further escalations and casualties on both sides.

Perceptions from both sides

In a panel discussion organized by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, researchers from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan shared their views on the recent border clash. According to Shairbek Dzhuraev, Co-founder and President of Crossroads Central Asia, “what we saw is a dramatically new level of interstate conflict between the two Central Asian countries. What we saw is the first instance in Central Asia when one country’s military (meaning Tajikistan’s military) was trespassing the border (meaning the border of Kyrgyzstan) and shelling the civilian population and occupying for several days the settlements, the villages of the neighbouring country”. He shared the view that “there’s a risk of overlooking the case of a military attack on unprovoked civilians by outside observers because of more conventional framing of the event as ‘border incident or border conflict’”. 

Parviz Mullajanov who is an independent researcher from Tajikistan, on the other hand, shared the view of Tajik policymakers. He noted that “the Tajik policymakers were frustrated by the statements of Kamchybek Tashiev, who is a chairman of the State Committee for National Security of Kyrgyzstan, and President Sadyr Japarov during and after the elections concerning the speeding up the solution of the border problems. Kamchybek Tashiev proposed to equal the status of Vorukh (an exclave of Tajikistan surrounded by Kyrgyzstan) to the territory of Kyrgyzstan. Also, in the meeting between Kyrgyz and Tajik officials Kamchybek Tashiev said that there were two proposals and ‘if you (Tajiks) accept it then good. Otherwise we (Kyrgyz) will force you’ was accepted as an ultimatum by Tajik officials. The former foreign minister of Tajikistan prepared a letter which later was approved by top officials in Tajikistan, calling Kamchybek Tashiev’s speech as not only undiplomatic but also humiliating”. According to Parviz Mullajanov, several factors forced Tajikistan to prepare to repel. 

When answering the question of the audience both Shairbek Dzhuraev and Parviz Mullajanov agreed that the border conflict severely damaged the reputation of state regimes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In Kyrgyzstan, President Sadyr Japarov, who came to power after the protests happened in October, lost his reputation considerably because of his inaction and inability to resolve the conflict. Both states have not been able to resolve the issue for decades. This inability to solve the border issues on both sides has led to the point at which border communities feel unsafe and hostility is growing between the two communities on both sides.

The role of the social media

The border conflict had not only physical but also social media dimensions. Information from the border areas was spreading at an increasing speed catching the attention of thousands of people both from inside and outside the Central Asia region. Kyrgyzstani citizens were actively creating posts that are aimed to attract the attention of the international community.  It is also worth mentioning that until the beginning of May there was no official information coming from Tajikistan. Several media sources including RFRL’s Kyrgyz service and Eurasianet were reporting that Tajikistan’s state officials didn’t allow journalists to report from the ground. Why journalists were not allowed to report from the ground in border areas of Tajikistan is not clear until now. 

On the days 28th, 29th, and 30th of April 2021, videos of Tajik speaking people with guns in their hands and burnt houses started circulating among Kyrgyz users all over social media. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were bombarded with videos and posts of those who were in Batken, Kyrgyzstan’s southern oblast, which borders Tajikistan. 

According to the Kloop news website overall 103 houses, 2 schools, one medical center, one kindergarten and police station, 3 border posts, 10 petrol stations and 8 food markets were burnt down in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region.

A 12-year-old girl, Madina Rahmatjanova died when she, her mother, and sister were running to hide from the mortar shootings. Her mother and sister were also injured. Madina died when neighbours escorted them to the city hospital. This news shocked all the people in Kyrgyzstan. Thousands of social media users changed their profile to a picture of a little girl in the fire with the Aigul flower in her head, a symbol of Batken, and a flower scripted in Red Book. 

The more shocking news was coming as people were returning to their homes and finding out their family members died in the fire or from gunshots. A 4-year-old boy died when running with his mother. He fell to the river and drowned. His body was found and buried in a neighbouring village because there were still shootings going on in his home village.

What’s next?

The clashes lasted for 4-5 days. They started on 28th of April 2021, yet heads of the State Committee on National Security of both states met only on the 1st of May 2021. Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov ordered an overhaul of the Golovnoi water intake facility where the conflict started and which both states claim ownership over on 7th May 2021. Moreover, the tensions between the two states are remaining high. Kyrgyz authorities recently turned down Tajik nationals flying either home or going to Russia through airports in Osh and Bishkek. Tajikistan is warning its citizens from entering Kyrgyzstan and it stopped any kind of exchange in the border areas. While governments are unable to sit down on the negotiation table and solve the issues the life of ordinary citizens on the local level on both sides of the border depends on the exchange of goods and services. Yet, the longer this most recent outbreak remains unsettled between both states, the stronger distrust and hostility are growing between the people on both sides.


References

Egemberdieva, M. (2021, January 14). Falling for the promises, yet again? Kyrgyzstan’s new president: New hope or the next disappointment? Retrieved from https://ostblog.hypotheses.org/1823

Eshalieva, K. (2021, May 6). What is happening on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border?. Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/what-happening-kyrgyz-tajik-border/

Helf, G. (2021, May 4). Border clash between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan risks spinning out of control. Retrieved from https://www.usip.org/publications/2021/05/border-clash-between-kyrgyzstan-and-tajikistan-risks-spinning-out-control

Imanaliyeva, A. (2021, May 19). Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan: Solving water puzzle key to preventing fresh fighting. Retrieved from https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-solving-water-puzzle-key-to-preventing-fresh-fighting

Imanaliyeva, A. (2021, May 26). Kyrgyzstan turns back Tajik nationals as tensions persist. Retrieved from https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-turns-back-tajik-nationals-as-tensions-persist

Kurmanalieva, G. (2019). Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: Endless border conflicts (4). Retrieved from EUCACIS website: https://www.cife.eu/Ressources/FCK/EUCACIS_Online%20Paper%20No%204%20-%20Kurmanalieva.pdf

Pannier, B. (2021, May 4). Deadly border conflict promises to change how Kyrgyz, tajiks see one another and their leaders. Retrieved from https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-border-fighting-perceptions/31237942.html


Meerim Egemberdieva is a civil activist and researcher from Kyrgyzstan. Her research interests include China, political processes in Central Asia, and gender issues.

Featured image: Kyrgyz-Tajik border area, Leilek District, Kyrgyzstan. Nataev, Kyrgyz-Tajik border area, Internatsional, CC BY-SA 3.0


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