Border Brawl: Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan’s Battle for Territory

Central Asia is an arid steppe and semi-desert region where water is a strategic raw material. It is not surprising that much of the conflict in this region is fought over water resources. In the case of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, however, the dispute is not entirely about water resources, although water resources also play a role. The real cause of the disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can be rather traced back to the times of the USSR when the Soviet Union drew the borders of the individual socialist states in a completely illogical way, and therefore the borders did not copy any ethnic or cultural environment. Thanks to this „wrong“ demarcation of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two countries share approximately 40 canals. Some of them originate in Kyrgyzstan and flow towards Tajikistan and some flow the other way around.

According to government data, the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan spans more than 974 kilometers, yet only 504 of those kilometers have been marked. This led to the creation of a large number of enclaves in the Fergana Valley and the growth of tensions between the individual states. Particularly in Vorukh, a Tajik exclave of 30 000 people in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province, which borders Tajikistan’s Sughd Province, and in the northern Tajik region of Isfara, social tensions are common. Thanks to the increasing tensions between the two nations and the individual steps taken by both states, the situation was subsequently resolved, which is described in more detail in the next paragraph.

Unveiling the Past: The Historical Backdrop of Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border Clashes

As already mentioned, the history of conflicts between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan dates back to the early 1990s, specifically to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since this year there have been many small skirmishes between these two countries caused by various misunderstandings related to water resources. An example of frequent skirmishes could be „The border clash in 1999 over water use in the Isfara River.

However, these struggles intensified on April 29 2021 when large-scale hostilities broke out in several Kyrgyz and Tajik villages in Batken and Leilek districts located in the Vorukh enclave. But what happened to cause the whole situation to escalate like this? There is a broadly unambiguous answer to this question. So-called „gasoline was added to the fire“ by the people of Tajikistan when they attempted to install security cameras to monitor a water intake station in a disputed area between the two countries. This decision caused the inhabitants of the aforementioned neighboring border villages of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to throw stones at each other. The whole situation was subsequently exacerbated by the involvement of the „security forces“ in these clashes through the firing of firearms and mortars at several points along the border between the two countries. Many people died or were injured and some buildings were destroyed. Subsequently, „joint checkpoints“ were established between the Kyrgyz village of Ak-Sai and the Tajik region Vorukh to control security in the volatile area. But the events of 2021 were only the beginning of this „conflict“. In 2022 it was renewed and intensified, which will be described in the next part of the article.

Crossfire Crisis: Inside the 2022 Border Battles Between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

A series of sporadic clashes on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan resumed in January 2022 after a series of clashes in 2021. Subsequently, several more minor skirmishes took place which escalated on 14 September 2022. On that day, Tajik troops entered Kyrgyzstan with the help of tanks and armored personnel carriers in an attempt to occupy a certain part of Kyrgyzstan’s territory. In addition, Tajik forces also used mortars to blast nearby Kyrgyz villages and airfields near the Batken area. Even though the Tajik troops crossed the border of Kyrgyzstan on 14 September, both sides are accusing each other who is being responsible for the outcome of the conflict because, as already mentioned, 14 September was preceded by many other smaller skirmishes which subsequently resulted in this Tajik move.

These events, of course, also affected the civilian population. More than 140 000 inhabitants were evacuated from the Batken and Osh regions. Of these 140 000 inhabitants, around 54 000 were from the Batken district, 25 000 directly from the tow Batken, 56 000 from the Leilek district, and the remaining 5 000 from the Osh region. According to official information, most of the people returned to their homes after the situation calmed down including 130 000 people in the Leilek and Batken districts and 5 000 in the Osh region. On the other hand, some of the population did not return to their homes after the situation calmed down and settled in other areas of Kyrgyzstan.

Like any conflict, the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has caused much damage. Along with human losses, personal assets, livelihood sources, and critical infrastructure were also damaged. According to government information as of November 2022, 427 private homes were destroyed and 238 were partially destroyed. In addition, 12 schools, 11 kindergartens, 4 hospitals, and 11 administrative buildings were damaged. Critical infrastructure such as electricity, water pipes, and others throughout the region were also damaged. As for the loss of life, the exact number of these borderline casualties is hard to determine. Numbers vary from source to source but for clarification, we can work with the fact that this conflict claimed around 100 victims. Among these casualties, there were 37 civilian casualties and even 5 of them were children.

Shadow of Shame: Investigating War Crimes Amidst the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border Clash of 2022

Despite the fact that the September 2022 border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was relatively short, unfortunately, there were also events that were completely contrary to any laws of war. These heinous acts were committed by the military forces of both states, so from that point of view both actors are guilty and it requires an immediate response to resolve these acts. In the following paragraphs, the various „war crimes“ that were committed by both the Kyrgyz military forces and the Tajik military forces are thoroughly detailed.

Most of the violations of the laws of war occurred on the third day of the conflict, September 16, 2022. Evidence suggests that on this day around 5 pm, Kyrgyz forces used a Bayraktar TB-2 drone to strike the central square of Ovchi Kal’acha where Tajik military units were allegedly located. However, at that time only civilians were in the square and no military units were present. According to sources, at least 10 people died and 13 were injured in this disproportionate attack. A 40-year-old woman who witnessed the attack said she heard whistling outside the smoke-filled square. „People were flying,“ she said. This raises the question of whether or not the Kyrgyz command was aware of the presence of the civilian population.

As for other acts on the Kyrgyz side that can be described as war crimes, it happened moments before the disproportionate drone attack on the central square. Two ambulances marked as carrying civilians came under fire near Khorbog in Tajikistan. The incoming bullets were most likely fired from the vicinity of the Kyrgyz village of Dostuk, approximately 110 meters away, and possibly from a nearby Kyrgyz border guard base. Ambulances, when they are used for medical transport, enjoy special protection under international humanitarian law, and deliberately targeting them is considered as a war crime.

As far as the military forces of Tajikistan are concerned, they have also committed acts that are completely contrary to the laws of war. For example, the Tajik forces attacked cars carrying fleeing Kyrgyz civilians. In this attack by Tajik forces, two people were killed and at least four were injured. According to the testimony of one Kyrgyz family, Tajik soldiers shot at them even after they got out of the car in case it exploded. For this reason, they had to lie on the ground for several hours and every time they moved the Tajik soldiers started shooting at them again. Another crime committed by Tajik forces is the killing of six civilians, including three who tried to escape and two in apparent „extrajudicial“ executions near a Kyrgyz village. In these circumstances. Tajik troops also condoned the looting and pillaging of Kyrgyz villages in an attempt to clear them of the indigenous population. Several villages were burned and destroyed due to these events.

The governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are still, according to their information, investigating these unacceptable acts committed by their military forces and even by civilians, and hopefully, they will be able to bring these people to justice to answer for their actions. Following these events, there has also been a move by both states to address the issues of training their military and security forces in international humanitarian law and to ensure that its standards are upheld in all future conflicts.

The Bear’s Stand: Analyzing Russia’s Reaction to the Kyrgyz-Tajik Clash

It is quite clear that the Russian Federation is an undeniable hegemon in Central Asia and has repeatedly exerted its influence there. Since Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia are members of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and Russia has military bases in both countries, this conflict was an even more sensitive issue for the Russian Federation because of the ongoing war in Ukraine. The problem with this conflict, however, was that it took place in the disputed Fergana Basin region, and because of this, there was initially a reluctance on the part of Russia to see this conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

However, as the conflict continued to escalate and an end was not on the agenda, President Putin began to urge both leaders to resolve the situation peacefully and diplomatically as soon as possible. In a phone call, Putin spoke with Kyrgyz President Sadyr Zhaparov and his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rakhmon, which the Kremlin announced during the conflict. In this phone call, Putin demanded the aforementioned peaceful end to the conflict as soon as possible and proposed mediating a meeting between the two states on the soil of the Russian Federation.

On the other hand, many people feared that Moscow would be unhappy about Kyrgyzstan’s impartial stance on the war in Ukraine and decided to support Tajikistan. This did not happen in the end and the Russian Federation confirmed its role as a hegemon in Central Asia and played the role of mediator in the Kyrgyz-Tajik dispute, which will be described in the following sections. However, some, such as the Russian MP Alexei Chepa, believed and still believe that this conflict was caused by Russia’s enemies in an attempt to take advantage of the circumstances and foment instability in the region to damage Russia. In any case, this does not change the fact that the Russian Federation has contributed significantly to negotiating peace and maintaining at least temporary stability.

Finding Common Ground: Exploring the Impact and Resolution of the Kyrgyz-Tajik Conflict

It could be said that minor conflicts between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are on the whole a common occurrence. Nevertheless, this whole conflict has shaken the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) in particular because, unlike previous conflicts, this one has been many times more brutal and has come to the attention of other international actors. It never does an organization any good to have two or more member states pitted against each other in an armed conflict with no end in sight. It was therefore important that this conflict should also be brought to an end as soon as possible through diplomacy and peace way.

In addition to the Russian Federation, other influential international actors such as China and Iran have also become involved in the resolution of this conflict. The involvement of these actors was mainly due to Russia’s initial reluctance to discuss any solution and participation in this conflict due to its own „problems“ caused by the war in Ukraine. Thus, for example, China saw in the resolution of this conflict the possibility that it could play a greater role in the Central Asian region, so it was largely pursuing its interests. However, unlike Iran, China has not made any significant move towards a solution. Iran, as well as Russia afterward, offered to mediate peace talks, which ultimately did not happen on Iranian territory.

But how did the whole conflict resolution turn out and what were the impacts? On 25 September 2022, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan agreed to demilitarize a part of their common territory that has been affected by war. Various mechanisms for future dispute resolution and strengthening security at the common border were also agreed upon. Despite these achievements, however, a big question mark still hangs over the situation between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and certain uncertainty is felt. In any case, the conflict has brought a lot of pain and uncertainty for the local population, who have lived through events that are difficult for people to take.

Border Clash Fallout: Shaping Central Asia’s Future Trajectory

The year 2023, i. e. the following year after the conflict, was marked by a kind of stagnation. There were some efforts at diplomatic resolution of the conflict and attempts to ease tensions, but the root causes and disputes from the past remained unresolved. But as for the consequences in the following years, these were not few.  For the future development of the region, this conflict had implications that need to be addressed. An example of the impacts that have subsequently manifested themselves in 2023 and now in 2024 is the increase in already high geopolitical tensions. This has been nicely demonstrated in the reaction of China and Iran, when these two countries began to exert their influence here. However, their presence may lead to an increase in rivalry, which is not at all a favorable situation for the Central Asian region.

This conflict also had strong economic implications, because Central Asia is an important transit zone for trade and energy. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, it has close trade links with the US but also with Russia. As far as Tajikistan is concerned, cooperation and trade links are more likely to be seen mainly with Russia. It is clear, therefore, that the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which is mentioned here, has affected this sector of relations in subsequent years (2023-2024). However, according to the latest information, trade relations between Kyrgyzstan and Russia and the US are in the same situation as they were before the conflict began in 2022. The same is true in the case of Tajikistan and Russia, but the same cannot be said of trade relations between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, because these relations are at a standstill like before the conflict.

Another consequence in the region after the 2022 ceasefire is that since then there has been greater control of the aforementioned controversial area (Batken province) and the water resources located there by actors such as Russia. Thus, there are regular checks on whether one of the countries is installing cameras here, as was the case in Tajikistan, or whether the ceasefire is being respected. Checks are also carried out by various international organizations such as the UN in order to prevent further possible war crimes. There has also been, for example, the provision of humanitarian aid by the European Union to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after the conflict to help those in need and to repair destroyed property, which has had a significant impact on the subsequent development of the region. It sounds ironic, but it can be said that thanks to this conflict, Central Asia has become more deeply aware of other actors, such as the European Union, which has had and is having, positive effects on the entire Central Asian region.

Closing Chapter: Kyrgyz–Tajik Border Dispute Finally Settled?

After the temporary „resolution of the conflict“ between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the question arises how the situation will develop further. The year 2023 was rather a year of stagnation as already mentioned but despite this there was some progress in resolving this conflict. Thanks to the demilitarisation of the disputed territory and the introduction of various measures, the outlook looks quite positive. However, the Central Asian region is known for its instability,  and the disputed area between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is too intimate a matter for both sides. Therefore, it is probably only a matter of time before the conditions are breached and the whole conflict starts up again. It is therefore important that influential actors such as Russia, China, and Iran exert their influence within the limits and try to maintain stability between these countries of the former Soviet Union. But the same applies to the states themselves. They should work to improve communication because if these states communicate with each other, they will not have to resolve disputes with each other immediately by armed means.



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Written by Matěj Bíma