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

Kyrgyz-Tajik Spat Highlights Border Issues

Lack of clarity about land and water rights in undemarcated border areas creates running tensions.
By Jenish Aydarov
Officials from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan say they have resolved all outstanding border disputes between their countries, but this optimistic claim has met with some scepticism among local residents and activists who say little attempt has been made to address the root causes of tensions.

After the heads of the two countries’ Security Councils met on November 25, they gave a press conference at which they said everything had been sorted out. “We reached agreement on all disputed matters,” said Kyrgyz Security Council secretary Adakhan Madumarov.

The main disagreements between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in recent years have centred on a lack of clarity about where the frontier runs, leading to claims that one side is encroaching on the other; on how to manage enclaves – small pockets of one country’s territory inside the other state – and on how to coordinate shared use of water resources.

Unlike most of the frontiers between Central Asian states, the 970 kilometre Kyrgyz-Tajik border has not undergone a process of demarcation to define, metre by metre on the ground, exactly where one country stops and the other begins.

In March this year, about 150 Tajik farmers and local government officials crossed into Kyrgyzstan and tried to destroy a dam that was blocking an irrigation canal that supplied their land with water. (See Tajik-Kyrgyz Water Clash a Sign of Things to Come, RCA No. 539, 02-Apr-08.)

As an example of the success of the latest talks, Madumarov cited the case of Chorku, a Tajik enclave inside Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz are to build 24 kilometres of road so that a highway takes a detour round the enclave.

Madumarov’s Tajik opposite number Amirkul Azimov agreed that all controversial matters had been dealt with, including arrangements for the waters of the river Isfara to be shared fairly between the two countries.

Oddly, the officials did not take the opportunity to discuss an incident that happened only two days earlier and that clearly illustrated the kind of recurring issue that needs to be resolved.

On November 23, Kyrgyz frontier guards challenged a group of Tajiks, accusing them of grazing their livestock far over the border line. In response, the Tajiks began throwing stones at the armed border troops. When one of the Kyrgyz fired warning shots into the air, the Tajiks rushed him and took his rifle off him.

Azimov appeared to downplay the incident, saying, “We weren’t going to discuss the November 23 incident at such a high level as this. The relevant agencies of the two countries will look at that situation,” he said.

Madumarov added that local government authorities and journalists had circulated inaccurate information, such as a story that one of the Tajiks had been injured. Such reporting, he said, was liable to “provoke conflict between Kyrgyz and Tajiks”.

IWPR interviewed the head of Kyrgyzstan’s border protection service, Zamir Moldoshev, who said the meeting between Azimov and Madumarov did produce an agreement that should help defuse future incidents.

“We agreed with our colleagues from Tajikistan that as soon as a conflict arises on the border, a commission made up of representatives of various agencies from the two countries will assemble within five hours. I think a commission like this will do a lot to help resolve conflicts as they arise.”

Kyrgyz deputy foreign minister Askar Beshimov told IWPR that “border-related conflicts happen everywhere, not just here”.

He noted that a new Tajik-Kyrgyz coordinating committee had been approved at a meeting between the two countries’ presidents in May this year, and would hold its first session in 2009.

Beshimov said the demarcation process was a lengthy one that could take years, and neither side would gain an unfair advantage as a result.

He also commented that the Kyrgyz public had an excessive fixation on border issues. “Nowhere else in the world are border problems discussed as much as in Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

Narmat Kasymov lives in the village of Aksay in Batken, a region of southern Kyrgyzstan that is sandwiched between Uzbekistan to the north and Tajikistan to the south.

He is less than optimistic that government meetings will reduce the tensions

“I can’t even count how many of these meeting take place within the space of a year, but I don’t see any tangible results. The conflicts on the border are really getting a lot more serious every day,” he said. “If only they’d mark out the frontier, we coud have a quiet life.”

Aziza Abdirasulova, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan, says Batken faces particular problems, for example a dwindling population as people move away in search of a better life, and concerns that Tajiks are gradually moving into the area by building houses just inside the border and then laying claim to the land. (For a related story, see Tajiks Buying Up Kyrgyz Homes Near Border, RCA No. 503, 30-Jul-07.)

According to Robert Avazbekov, who heads the Batken branch of Foundation for Tolerance International, a Central Asian conflict-prevention group, one of the problems with high-level government discussions is that local people are not included.

“People from the White House [Kyrgyz government] are not too well informed about conflicts that happened on the border, and they don’t know the reasons why they happen,” he said. “It would make sense for the local authorities to be represented during negotions , and for government to take an interest in local residents’ views.”

“What happens now is that senior officials turn up and offer a solution that is superficial and works on paper only,” he added.

Jenish Aydarov is an IWPR contributor in Batken. Aida Kasymalieva is IWPR’s editor for Kyrgyzstan.