Is this now a war or not? What is going on at the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border?

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan said that as a result of clashes on the border of the two countries, at the end of last week, about a hundred people were killed on both sides, and more than 150 were injured. The parties accuse each other of using Grad multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), tanks, mortars, and combat drones.

This has become one of the biggest border tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which is undoubtedly worrying both local authorities and outside observers. The fact that the skirmishes took place during the SCO meeting in Samarkand when the possibilities for the future of the Central Asian area were debated and the presidents of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan participated in this summit.

Who started first?

A clear answer to this question, as often happens in such situations, is almost impossible to find. According to a number of Western media, Kyrgyzstan began the evacuation of residents of villages bordering on Tajikistan after a shootout broke out. The Kyrgyz authorities said that the armed forces of Tajikistan occupied several villages in the country for some time but quickly left them.

On Friday, the Kyrgyz city of Batken, located 10 kilometers from the border, was hit by MLRS from Tajikistan. At the same time, the Kyrgyz authorities said that Tajik border guards opened fire on Kyrgyz border patrols in the Osh region. According to the Kyrgyz side, since the beginning of the conflict, 137,000 residents have been evacuated from the border regions, September 19 was declared a day of national mourning in Kyrgyzstan.

For its part, Tajikistan has accused the Kyrgyz military of attacking the mosque with UAVs, which, according to official statements, resulted in the death of 12 people. Also, according to official Dushanbe, several people died as a result of the shelling of a school and an ambulance.

According to the chairman of the Center for the Protection of Peace in Asia. M. Tursunzoda, Deputy Director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of Tajikistan Saifullo Safarov, one of the reasons for the current clashes was the “human factor”, since, at the time they began, peace negotiations were taking place between the Kyrgyz and Tajik sides. According to him, one of the commanders of the Kyrgyz military unit reported to his superiors that they were attacked by Tajiks, and they would not give them a single centimeter of Kyrgyz territory.

“If they had not attacked first, the Tajik side would have calmly waited for the results of the negotiations,” Saifullo Safarov explained to Reedus.

However, the conflict situation came to naught as unexpectedly as it began. The parties quickly agreed on a ceasefire, and by Sunday the situation had completely calmed down. On Sunday, the leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Sadyr Japarov and Emomali Rahmon, spoke by phone with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. According to the Kremlin’s press service, he “urged the parties to prevent further escalation and take measures to resolve the situation as soon as possible by exclusively peaceful, political and diplomatic means.”

Causes of the conflict

For the majority of the uninitiated, the recent events on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border came as a real shock, especially given the lightning-fast start of the conflict and its no less rapid end. Meanwhile, the contradictions between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have a long history, similar in essence to similar conflicts in other parts of the former USSR.

Border problems lie at the heart of everything, says Saifullo Safarov.

“Of more than 900 km. about half of the border is not demarcated. In these areas, all kinds of provocateurs warm their hands. They provoke conflicts between local residents by closing roads, attacking border villages or ordinary citizens,” he explained to Reedus.

The last serious skirmish on the border of the two countries, preceding the current one, occurred in April 2021. Then, about 55 people were killed on both sides, and 205 people were wounded.

One of the main “points of instability” is the Batken region – the most remote region of Kyrgyzstan, bordering both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There are seven Tajik enclaves on its territory. The current armed conflict broke out near one of them – Vorukh, where about 35 thousand citizens of Tajikistan live. All villages belonging to this enclave are surrounded by Kyrgyz settlements and agricultural land. In a number of places in Vorukh, the border was drawn indistinctly, which periodically leads to conflicts between the local population and the border guards. The most important point of contention in this area is the road connecting the main territory of Tajikistan and Vorukh. According to early Soviet maps, it belonged to the territory of the Tajik SSR, and according to later maps, to the Kyrgyz. Wherein,

In addition to disputed roads and undemarcated borders, unresolved territorial issues remain an equally significant conflict factor.

Saifullo Safarov recalls that several thousand hectares, leased to the Kyrgyz for pastures during the Soviet years, were not returned to Tajikistan. At the same time, according to him, immediately after gaining independence, Tajikistan transferred to Kyrgyzstan 50,000 hectares in the Alai Valley with 3,000 people.

“I remember how they persuaded the population of these villages to become citizens of Kyrgyzstan. The population did not listen to the local akims, and the government of Tajikistan instructed the then deputy prime minister, Akbar Turajonzoda, to go there and convince the people,” Safarov says.

Not the same borders

The Eurasian geopolitician, ethnologist, historian and archaeologist from Tajikistan, Guzel Maitdinova, takes a somewhat broader look at the causes of the conflict. She is a professor at the Department of History and Theory of International Relations of the Russian-Tajik (Slavonic) University (RTU), director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies of the Russian-Tajik (Slavonic) University, executive director of the Central Asian Expert Club “Eurasian Development” in Dushanbe.

According to Maitdinova, the conflict that broke out on September 15-16 on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border is connected not only with the unsettled state borders between the two countries, but also with the complexity of ethno-political problems in the Ferghana Valley.

“This is the most densely populated region, where ethno-territorial problems are intertwined, the lack of water and land, the landscape and climatic conditions of the settlement of the population of the two countries, the activities of organized criminal communities, and religious extremism determine the degree of ethno-political tension here. Conflicts along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border have flared up almost monthly this year,” Guzel Maitdinova explained to Reedus.

According to her, the incident that occurred on September 15-16 is connected, first of all, with the complexity of the implementation of the agreements reached. Here she recalls the agreement reached by the parties regarding the allocation of land around the Vorukh enclave for the construction of a bypass road connecting it with Tajik territory.

“Unfortunately, so far the agreements have not been implemented by the Kyrgyz side, that is, there is clearly insufficient political will to resolve border problems, and this is one of the serious causes of conflicts. The disruption of the implementation of agreed positions on the resolution of border problems is increasingly leading to bloody conflicts,” – reminds Guzel Maitdinova.

In her opinion, there is a tendency to turn conflict situations in Tajik-Kyrgyz relations into strategic contradictions, which, as independent factors, will create serious challenges to regional stability in the foreseeable future.

Will there be a war between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan?

Can the current conflict situation lead to more serious consequences, up to the outbreak of hostilities? Answering this question, Reedus’ interlocutors try to avoid direct assessments and conclusions.

Saifullo Safarov focuses on the fact that the Tajik and Kyrgyz peoples lived in peace and harmony for a long time and could well have continued to live like this if some forces had not fanned the conflict in their own selfish interests. He connects certain fears with the fact that local groups of representatives of one country live in the territory of another.

“We will live side by side with the Kyrgyz for a long time, as neighbors, and we do not want any conflicts with them. Previously, there were no Kyrgyz in these territories, and there was no problem either. Then they started working as shepherds on the collective farms of Tajikistan, and settled on our lands,” Safarov says.

This, according to him, did not affect the relationship between representatives of different peoples, on the contrary, many of them even managed to become relatives during this time. The situation has changed in recent years, when “some provocateurs”, as Saifullo Safarov calls them, began to play with this topic to solve their political problems.

Safarov hopes for the activity of the Kyrgyz civil society, which, relying on good neighborly relations and democratic culture, is able to prevent the provocations of those who, in the form of “heroes of the nation”, neglect the national interests of the Kyrgyz for the sake of their mafia interests.

Guzel Maitdinova also believes that countries are able to avoid extreme measures in their confrontation, while she pins her hopes on bilateral negotiations.

“At present, as a result of negotiations between the Foreign Ministries of the two countries, the efforts of the heads of the national security committees of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have ceased hostilities, and a joint commission will be established to investigate the causes of the conflict on September 15-17, 2022. Both states intend to solve bilateral problems through diplomacy,” she sums up.

At the same time, according to Maitdinova, in order to solve the complex border problem between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, countries need strong political will and readiness for certain compromises in the border settlement.

Emotions are running high on both sides of the border, while the two leaders do not effectively communicate with their respective publics enough to address the fears and frustrations of their people and the concerns of the international community. Given the scale of destruction, it is difficult to imagine that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could address this conflict without external mediators. It is important for the international community and international organizations to step in and help with fact-finding and reconciliation. Otherwise, the world will get yet another open wound of conflict and hostility.

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