Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Fears Over Tajik Border Talks

Violent border clashes do not bode well for talks to resolve a Soviet-era dispute.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Bishkek fears recent clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajik villagers over disputed frontier areas may jeopardise border delimitation talks scheduled for this spring.


On January 3, a crowd of roughly 200 villagers from the Sogd region of Tajikistan stormed the frontier and smashed Kyrgyz customs posts. In retaliation, Kyrgyz villagers from the Batken region marched into Tajik territory and demolished a recently established border checkpoint.


There is a general unease among the Kyrgyz political establishment that the incident is an attempt by the Tajiks to signal that they will not give up their claim on the disputed lands easily at border talks in Dushanbe this March.


Indeed, the Kyrgyz deputy from Batken, Tashbolot Baltabaev, said he feared that villagers on the Tajik side of the frontier might take further action to stamp their authority on these areas. "It is only the beginning and more serious confrontation could follow," he warned.


Officially, both Bishkek and Dushanbe put the blame on the local authorities for the border clashes, in which two Kyrgyz policemen were reportedly wounded.


Tajik security chief Amirkul Azimov said the checkpoints that so enraged the villagers had been erected by local bureaucrats and contravened temporary bilateral arrangements.


Azimov assured IWPR that both sides were working towards resolving the conflict, and freedom of movement between the countries had been restored.


The deputy governor of Kyrgyzstan's Batken region, Maksat Dyikanov, echoed his view, telling IWPR that both sides of the border were under the control of their respective law enforcement agencies.


Many Kyrgyz believe Tajikistan wants the disputed territories in order to accommodate growing numbers of people who are migrating from poor southern and central regions to more affluent northern parts of the country, which border Kyrgyzstan, according to Central Asian analyst with the International Crisis Group, ICG, Philip Noubel.


"They feel as if Tajikistan is pushing on Kyrgyz territories in order to acquire more space to accommodate their growing needs," he said.


Noubel said there's also a possibility that Tajik locals may have sought to occupy the disputed territories because they fear Dushanbe might trade them away. Their concerns, says Noubel, stem from the fact that their government brokered a border delimitation with China last year in which, many believe, Tajikistan lost out.


"I would not exclude that the latest incident was an attempt to make their demands heard before officials of both sides sit down to the negotiating table," he told IWPR.


The Kyrgyz-Tajik border is 900 km long and mostly mountainous. However, fertile stretches of the frontier have been disputed by Kyrgyz and Tajiks since Soviet times.


While the Batken region lies within Kyrgyzstan, it contains a Tajik enclave, Vorukh, separated from Tajikistan by a 20-km stretch of land.


Vorukh is home to around 40,000 ethnic Tajiks, who like to maintain close ties with the homeland. It is here, around the enclave and along the border, where all disputed areas, rich in water reserves and pastures, are concentrated.


According to Noubel, it is difficult to say which side has the strongest claim on these regions as both refer to maps from different periods, basing their argument on the date which suits them most.


The most serious border confrontation took place in 1989, when local Tajiks and Kyrgyz squabbled violently. Blood was shed on both sides and Moscow intervened to restore order.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz and Tajiks declared independence, but the border dispute was not resolved. Desultory discussions to settle the issue were commenced and then abandoned, as Tajikistan struggled through a civil war and its aftermath.


It was not until spring 2002 that the dispute erupted again, after Tajikistan planted a new border outpost in the disputed territory. Kyrgyz citizens were forced to queue for days, waiting for Tajik permits to travel through an area that had only recently been a part of their territory.


Mass protests took place, followed by talks at regional level. The Tajiks eventually relented by removing the border posts.


It was not long, however, before the Tajiks began erecting more of them elsewhere along the frontier.


Over the course of the summer and autumn of 2002, matters rapidly worsened as the Kyrgyz Batken authorities responded tit-for-tat, building their own checkpoints alongside the new Tajik ones.


The movement of people along the border was dramatically hindered and the Tajik enclave in Vorukh found itself cut off from Tajikistan as a whole.


This seems to have prompted both sides to resume postponed frontier negotiations and, in December last year, a Tajik delegation arrived in Bishkek.


On the face of it, the talks appear to have been cordial. Both sides took the view that the new checkpoints were illegal and moreover, impractical, impeding the normal passage of citizens and goods.


But instead of forging ahead with a resolution to the crisis, they chose to blame the border problems on regional authorities acting independently of the central administration.


Abdusalam Abdurakhmonov, a prominent Kyrgyz artist in the Leilek district of the Batken region, is not hopeful of a political settlement. "The nerves of ordinary people have already reached breaking point, as they face endless humiliation every time they cross the border," he said.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek