Can Kyrgyz-Tajik tensions spiral into a bigger crisis?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 26 Sep 2022

Recent border clashes killed nearly 100 people from the two neighbouring Central Asian states, signalling their friction could destabilise the entire region.

“While Kyrgyzs and Tajiks have a 970 km-long border, more than 400 kilometres has not been agreed upon by both states until now,” says Otabek Omonkulov, an Uzbek academic. ( Fatih Uzun / TRTWorld )

While leaders of China, Russia and some Central Asian states met in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand city for the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) ten days ago, intense border clashes broke out between two member-states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, killing at least 94 people of the two warring nations. 

Hundreds of cases of injury  to people were also reported from both sides until a ceasefire was agreed upon on September 16. Regional experts, however, are not too optimistic about the ceasefire transitioning into a lasting peace. 

“It’s interesting that Kyrgyz-Tajik clashes happened when the SCO meeting was on,” says Otabek Omonkulov, an Uzbek academic, whose work focuses on Central Asian politics. 

The silence maintained by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the two Central states which have mediated between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan during past clashes, has many experts wondering whether the regional rivalry has crossed the point of de-escalation, Omonkulov tells TRT World.

Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, who are the two former Soviet republics, have recently chosen a careful political line in regard to their relations with Moscow, staying neutral on the Ukraine conflict. 

“No one is reining them in,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think-tank, referring to how outsider Eurasian powers have chosen not to intervene in the Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict. 

The clashes have forced more than 137,000 Kyrgyz civilians to flee from border areas, which appears to indicate that the Tajiks have been more the aggressive side. 

“While Kyrgyzs and Tajiks have a 970 km-long border, more than 400 kilometres has not been agreed upon by both states until now,” says Otabek Omonkulov, an Uzbek academic.(TRTWorld)

But Tajikistan has accused Kyrgyzstan of provoking the recent fighting. 

Why now? 

Pantucci believes Tajikistan’s “aggressive” behaviour might be related to “a general attitude in government” because President Emomali Rahmon, who has led the former Soviet republic since 1994, has recently shown some signs that he might be stepping down soon. 

As a result, the ongoing succession process in Dushanbe, which has a lot to do with Rahmon’s legacy, might create some nervousness in the Tajik leadership, according to Pantucci. “They were similarly aggressive in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAR),” says Pantucci, referring to recent tensions between the central Tajik government and local population in the GBAR. 

But he also adds that current tensions are not particularly new. “In fact, the clashes we have seen on the border recently really go back to even before the fall of Kabul,” he says. Contentious claims on border regions are the main source of continuing tensions between the two states, he says. 

The most recent reason for escalating tensions might be related to reciprocal accusations that one side is blocking the other side to access water sources, Pantucci informs. While it’s  difficult to know the real trigger, he believes recent tensions are “the continuation of what has been going on for a year and a bit now”.

The Kyrgyz-Tajik clashes are also a source of headache for Russia, which has appeared to be stuck in its offensive in Ukraine. Moscow has strong influence over both states. “I’m sure they don’t like to see a Kyrgyz-Tajik fight, but they haven’t done anything about it in the past,” says Pantucci. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leading voice in the SCO, which he wants to turn into an alternative alliance against the Western domination, called both sides "take steps to resolve the situation as soon as possible”.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon pose for a photo at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Sept. 16, 2022.(AP)

Kamal Alam, a military analyst and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, sees a Western political motivation in recent border clashes between the two Central Asian states, which have close ties with Russia. 

“Some say it's connected to the general agitation of Russia inspired by the US to destabilise all of the Russian flank across Central Asia,” Alam tells TRT World. “I think they (the US) don't push them directly. But more of a strategy to unsettle Russia's underbelly,” he adds, referring to Central Asia, a critical region, which has been under Moscow’s influence since the 19th century. 

Artificial borders

Experts believe that the real problem between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan goes back to the artificial “colonial” Central Asian borders mainly drawn by the former Soviet Union, a communist state, which created the Central Asian republics, dividing the predominantly Turkic-populated region among them.  

“While Kyrgyzs and Tajiks have a 970 km-long border, more than 400 kilometres has not been agreed upon by both states until now,” says Omonkulov. “They constantly have problems on those contested border areas because both sides claim their own sovereignty,” says the Uzbek academic. 

In the last 12 months, more than hundred separate clashes occurred in those border areas, according to Kyrgyz authorities, says Omonkulov. Both countries refuse to make any concessions to the other side, potentially increasing chances of armed conflict, says the academic. 

The Fergana Valley, an ethnically diverse region in Central Asia, were divided by the Soviets into three communist republics, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which created many border disputes among them following their independence from Moscow in the 1990s.(TRTWorld)

During recent clashes, Bishkek closed its borders with Tajikistan, which was a blow to Dushanbe’s trade that goes through Kyrgyzstan across Central Asia, according to Omonkulov.  

“So many communities are divided across these borders that suited the USSR but not the locals. A bit like the India-Pakistan border or Afghan-Pakistan border. So the main issue is faulty borders, defying history,” says Alam. “Now nationalism and geopolitics combine for super powers and regional powers causing friction.” 

Like Western colonial designs in the Middle East and subcontinent, the Soviets drew the Central Asian borders to control the region, according to Omonkulov. To prove his point, the Uzbek academic gives the example of the Fergana Valley, an ethnically diverse region, which was occupied by the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century. 

“The Soviets divided the Fergana Valley into three Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, in a sense that if these states won their independence in the future, they would have disagreements with each other in regard to their territories in the historical region,” says Omonkulov. 

Parts of the Fergana Valley lie in eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan. As a result, border areas of Kyrgyzstan, a Turkic state, and Tajikistan, a Persian-majority state, have mixed populations, including both Kyrgyzs and Tajiks as well as Uzbeks and others.