Reducing Tensions on Central Asian Borders

Strong ties between Tajik and Kyrgyz governments prevent local unrest from getting out of hand.

Reducing Tensions on Central Asian Borders

Strong ties between Tajik and Kyrgyz governments prevent local unrest from getting out of hand.

Tajik troops patrol the outer limits of the Vorukh enclave, January 2014. (Photo courtesy of RFE/RL Tajik Service. © RFE/RL)
Tajik troops patrol the outer limits of the Vorukh enclave, January 2014. (Photo courtesy of RFE/RL Tajik Service. © RFE/RL)

When small conflicts fail to escalate into big ones, it does not make the headlines. The leaderships of two Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have successfully navigated their way through months of tensions on their common border, although there is still much to be done to address the roots of conflict on the ground.

Relations between the two governments have generally been good since Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991, and that has been critical to helping them get through rough patches this year.

The unrest is mostly around Vorukh, an exclave of Tajikistan wholly enclosed within Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken region. Batken residents currently have to pass through Vorukh to get to parts of areas on either side of it, while the enclave’s 40,000 residents again have to travel through Kyrgyzstan to get to Tajikistan proper. The Kyrgyz authorities want to build a bypass road around Vorukh, but this itself has caused tensions due to uncertainty about where the border runs.

In January, Tajik frontier guards stationed in Vorukh tried to stop Kyrgyz workers laying a section of the new road. Shots were fired when Kyrgyz border forces confronted them. Officials on both sides agreed measures to calm things down, but in May, running battles and arson attacks involving civilians from Vorukh and neighbouring Kyrgyz areas caused several injuries. This incident started when a group of Tajiks hurled stones at a passing Kyrgyz car. Then in July, a firefight broke out between border guards when a Kyrgyz patrol tried to stop Tajiks from Vorukh enclave laying a water pipe from a river on contested territory.

A third encounter between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards took place in late August. It too was in Batken region, but this time in the Leilek district, further west towards the border with Tajikistan itself. The Tajiks claimed it began when Kyrgyz border guards attempted to rebuild a bridge over the Hoja Bokirgon river, while the Kyrgyzstan authorities accused Tajik frontier guards of setting up a new post in disputed territory. Several people were killed and injured in these recurring clashes over the course of 2014. (See Communities Struggle to Overcome Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Tensions for more of the context.) 

The Tajik and Kyrgyz governments have now agreed to lay two separate highways for use by their respective nationals, replacing roads on which shared use has been a source of tensions.

The agreement was reached when Tajik president Imomali Rahmon met his Kyrgyz counterpart Almazbek Atambaev at a September summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, held in Dushanbe.

Muzaffar Yunusov, spokesman for the regional government of Soghd in northern Tajikistan, which has jurisdiction over Vorukh, told IWPR that one of the roads would provide a direct route between the exclave and the rest of Tajikistan.

Atambaev and Rahmon also agreed on a way to fix another contentious issue, by moving border checkpoints further back to prevent their security forces running into each other.

While both measures are positive steps, they do not address the fundamental issue of disputed territory. Only about half the route of the 976-kilometre Kyrgyz-Tajik frontier has been formally agreed.

In the Soviet period, the exact route of borders between individual republics did not really matter, and rural communities used traditional pasture lands, water sources and other assets on the other side. After 1991, frontiers and territory suddenly became important, and people from one country could suddenly find that their homes or farmland were located “abroad”, and that old customary access routes were now contested.

On the ground, these issues have created suspicion and animosity between communities that used to get on – especially in areas where no one is really sure what land belongs to whom. The lack of regulation has benefitted one group – smugglers – for whom porous frontiers offer numerous opportunities, from cross-border petrol trading to shifting consignments of Afghan heroin.

While praising the willingness of the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments to reach agreements that contribute to reducing conflict, analysts in both countries say officials also need to look at the local issues that act as flashpoints for recurring clashes.

A Kyrgyz government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that high-level decision-making needed to take account of the impact on local livelihoods. He noted that the Tajiks in Vorukh, for example, traditionally grazed their animals in pastures outside on Kyrgyz territory.

“Even if we close off the border with barbed wire, people will continue to cross it frontier to reach pastures which they believe belong to them,” he said.

In late August, the Kyrgyz deputy prime minister responsible for border security. Abdyrahman Mamataliev announced that Tajik access to pasture land inside Kyrgyzstan would be guaranteed under temporary leases. He said this would start happening once the two governments signed a formal agreement, which was expected to be finalised by the end of the year.

The key to improving relations, the Kyrgyz official interviewed by IWPR said, was not so much frontier regulation as ensuring that government policies encouraged trade which benefitted everyone. There is already a thriving traffic in commodities and foodstuffs, with Tajiks going to buy coal and Chinese-made goods in Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyz shopping for flour, fruit and vegetables at markets in Tajikistan.

“Conflicts arise when there are no jobs and when people have nothing to do,” the official said. “In my job, I often meet Kyrgyz people from border areas. The elders tell me that they [and their Tajik neighbours] used to see one another frequently and go to each other’s weddings and funerals. Now this practice has ceased to exist.”

Last month, non-government groups from Batken and Soghd regions held a series of cross-border events designed to forge links between young Tajiks and Kyrgyz.

Abdulghani Abdulvahob is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.

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