Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border disputes
More than a third of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border is disputed, with the area surrounding the Tajik enclave of Vorukh a regular flashpoint over territorial claims and access to water. Border disagreements between the three countries that share the fertile Fergana Valley – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – stem from demarcations made during the Soviet era. The knotting, twisting frontiers left several communities with restricted access to their home countries. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, tensions at the border have been high.
Russia's interaction with the local peoples in the 18th and 19th was the Central Asians' first contact with an industrialized European society. Russian tsarist forces established colonial rule over much of the territory in the middle and late 19th Century, but it was not until the middle of the 1920s, about seven years after the Bolshevik Revolution, that the territories of Bukhara and Khiva fell directly under Russian power. In the 1920s and 30s, the Soviet rulers gave the republics of Central Asia most of their present-day borders. In creating the units defined in those years, the Soviet leadership did not intend to reinforce national consciousness. Nevertheless, the borders prepared the ground for cultural and linguistic engineering that did much to shape the nationalities present in Central Asia today.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Stalin's paranoid policies brought many exiles from the European part of the USSR to Central Asia, sometimes depositing entire villages in the middle of the steppes. After World War II, the Central Asian republics were subject to an intense period of industrialization and russification, which changed the inhabitants' ways of life permanently.
Historical claims to certain territories do not always mirror the current political landscape. Central Asia was carved up into five "homelands" which had little semblance to the political and territorial situation in Central Asia before 1917. In fact, most specialists agree that Soviet power purposefully designed complicated and arbitrary borders in an attempt to "divide and conquer." Generally, maps drawn after Russian colonization of Central Asia have been the basis for contemporary border demarcation work for the current Central Asian states that didn't exist at the time.
Meetings of officials poring over Russian-Soviet maps to determine the borders of their countries is possibly the only way to make progress in reaching final agreements on the remaining frontiers of the five Central Asian states. But for the people living in these areas, the issue of where the borders should be depends on where arable fields and pasturelands are located and where the water sources are.
On 11 January 2014, a clash between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards in a disputed area along the border left security forces wounded on both sides. Following the incident, Kyrgyzstan closed its border with Tajikistan. In mid-2014 fatal clashes between border security forces of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan occurred over two months in the Ferghana Valley, including an exchange of fire in early July between border officials in the vicinity of Vorukh, as well as an incident in late August on the border between Leilek, Kyrgyzstan and Bobojon Gafur, Tajikistan. These clashes follow a similar confrontation in January, also in Vorukh.
In Vorukh, a predominantly Tajik-populated village located on the Kyrgyz side in Batken, three violent conflicts have taken place in 2019 alone. The incident in July 2019 led to one death and seventeen hospitalizations. Batken province has favorable hydrometeorological and geographical conditions for apricot and crop cultivation. However agricultural development has been constrained by main factors such as absence of irrigation water and deterioration of soils meliorative condition. Organization of modern demonstration plot to promote benefits of water saving technologies and optimal agricultural practices is timely and relevant for this region.
On 26 March 2021, the chief of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev, said that Bishkek is ready to give 12,000 hectares of land from Kyrgyzstan's southern region of Batken to Tajikistan in exchange for the territory of Vorukh. Tashiev also said that Kyrgyzstan’s long-standing border issues with another neighbor, Uzbekistan, had been "100 percent fully resolved" after talks in Tashkent.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon assured residents of the country’s volatile Vorukh exclave within Kyrgyzstan that it will not be part of any land swap between the neighboring countries as they seek a solution to halt border disputes that frequently turn violent. Rahmon’s statement during a trip to meet with residents of the exclave on 09 April 2021 comes weeks after a top Kyrgyz official publicly stated that Bishkek is ready to include the exclave in a land exchange.
"There have not been any talks about the possible exchange of Vorukh for another territory in the last 19 years [since the border delimitation negotiations started], and there is no possibility for it. I am making this statement because of various reports have been spread via the media regarding the issue recently. Border demarcation is a long process and there is no place for emotions in the matter," Rahmon said, calling on Vorukh residents to live “peacefully” with those on the other side of the border.
The clashes that erupted in April 2021 along the border between the two poor, mountainous countries were the heaviest in years and had raised fears they might escalate into a wider conflict. Kyrgyz and Tajik civilians became embroiled in a dispute over river infrastructure on 28 April 2021. Kyrgyz police in the Batken region blamed Tajik citizens for the escalation, saying they started shooting at a military unit located in the village of Kok-Tash, while gunfire was also reported from the Tajik side near the Kyrgyz village of Ak-Sai. Tajikistan's Border Guard Service rejected the Kyrgyz account, saying that Kyrgyz military personnel were the first to shoot when they opened fire at Tajik border units near the Golovnoi water distribution center, located in territory that Tajik authorities claim jurisdiction over.
Kyrgyzstan said 30 April 2021 that its death toll in armed clashes with Central Asian rival Tajikistan had reached 31, after the pair agreed a ceasefire following the worst fighting along their disputed border in years. Kyrgyz Deputy Health Minister Aliza Soltonbekova told RFE/RL on April 30 that 154 of her country's citizens, including 23 law enforcement, security, and military personnel, were injured during April 28-29 clashes. Over 20,000 citizens had been evacuated from two districts bordering Tajikistan where the fighting had been most intense, Kyrgyzstan also said. The government of Kyrgyzstan's Batken region – which borders Tajikistan – said the citizens had been "placed in specially organized points" in its administrative centre, "or went to visit relatives".
Military units from the two countries began exchanging fire on 29 APril 2021, but later that day a ceasefire was announced by Kyrgyzstan's foreign ministry from 8:00 pm (1400 GMT), with armed forces returning to their bases. Tajikistan acknowledged the ceasefire in a statement published by its state information service, saying the two sides "came to a mutual agreement to end the armed conflict, to withdraw personnel and military equipment to places of permanent deployment". A representative of the police in Kyrgyzstan's Batken region said that shooting had continued during the night "but not intensively". Shooting occurred "between both military units and civilians," he said.
Tajikistan, a closed authoritarian state, made fewer statements as the clashes unfolded, noting only that two citizens had been admitted to hospital, with one in a serious condition. Its security committee accused Kyrgyz soldiers of opening fire on Tajik troops at the Golovnaya water distribution point, located on the Isfara River. At least 12 Tajik citizens, including four military personnel, were killed and dozens of others injured in the clashes.
The borders of these two states in the Ferghana Valley are still not demarcated, and the cross-border communication, management, and cooperation between border guards in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is woefully inadequate. Rather than eyeing each other across disputed territory, the border guards of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should be cooperating to limit the flow of illicit trade – in drugs, weapons, and humans – that transits the Ferghana Valley, and which undermines common security throughout the OSCE space.
Given the frequency of clashes, both countries frequently publish one-sided, controversial stories. Tajik and Kyrgyz journalists rarely report perspectives from the other side and usually cite sources only from their respective countries, including some government sources. In 2019, two leading information agencies, Asia Plus in Tajikistan and 24.kg in the Kyrgyz Republic, decided to cooperate with each other to promote peace at the border. The two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding on July 25, 2019, which stipulated that covering cross-border issues has great social significance for the audiences of the two countries and that as such, information agencies should guarantee accurate, unbiased reporting that includes the opinions of all parties involved.
The U.S. government, through the USAID-funded Smart Waters project, fosters transboundary river cooperation between the countries of Central Asia, including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan by building partnerships among water management stakeholders, specifically on the Isfana river basin. The Smart Waters project, implemented by the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia, helps establish Small Basin Councils (SBCs) on both sides of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. Together, these SBCs develop joint transboundary action plans for the sustainable development of their watershed. SBCs enhance cooperation among the national and local authorities, local communities, water users, farmers, non-governmental organizations, and other interest groups.
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