The Tajik narrative of the causes and consequences of the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border disputes
Although the recent conflict between the Tajik and Kyrgyz forces in the border areas was ended in less than 24 hours via a ceasefire agreement, it didn’t manage to sooth the concerns of the regional and trans-regional actors in Central Asia. This conflict can be considered as a sign of a dormant crisis as well as a fire under the ashes. This crisis is rooted in the artificial demarcations of the Soviet era, and today Russia seeks to control its interests in the region by simply "controlling" the crisis rather than resolving it. However, the recent conflict indicated that sometimes controlling such a crisis can get out of the hands of any actor and pave the way for a widespread insecurity.
Institute for East Strategic Studies
Although the recent conflict between the Tajik and Kyrgyz forces in the border areas was ended in less than 24 hours via a ceasefire agreement, it didn’t manage to sooth the concerns of the regional and trans-regional actors in Central Asia. This conflict can be considered as a sign of a dormant crisis as well as a fire under the ashes. This crisis is rooted in the artificial demarcations of the Soviet era, and today Russia seeks to control its interests in the region by simply "controlling" the crisis rather than resolving it. However, the recent conflict indicated that sometimes controlling such a crisis can get out of the hands of any actor and pave the way for a widespread insecurity. Therefore, this conflict should be taken seriously and the narratives of the both sides regarding the dimensions and consequences of the crisis should be heard carefully.
In this regard, we have conducted an interview with Mr. Shirali Rezayan, PhD in Political Science and senior researcher at the Institute of Asian and European Studies of Tajikistan’s Academy of Sciences.
IESS: First, please tell us about the history of the border disputes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the outcome of the negotiations between the two countries. Rezayan: The border disputes in the Fergana Valley, which covers a large part of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, began with the demarcation of national-territorial boundaries in the Soviet Union in 1924. In other words, the issue goes back to the time when the Soviet government decided to establish the Soviet Socialist Republics in the territory of the autonomous Republic of Turkestan and the People's Republics of Bukhara and Khiva.
Naturally, the process of demarcation of the national borders was carried out regardless of the characteristics of Central Asia, and its unresolved issues have remained to this day and created deep problems for these countries. From this point of view, this debate can be considered as one of the longest border issues of the former Soviet Union.
The main problem with demarcation of the borders between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is that the two sides use two different documents as premise. The Tajik side relies on documents from 1925 to 1927, according to which most of the current disputed territories were in the possession of Dushanbe. But the Kyrgyz side relies on the administrative documents from the 1950s as well as the agreement of creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
The negotiations between the two sides began in 2002 with the establishment of a joint intergovernmental commission on demarcation, which continues to this day. The length of the border between the two countries is 970 km and so far more than half of it has been determined and marked.
Since 2005, more than 100 cases of tension have broken out on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, which has affected the relations between the two countries. The tensions and conflicts between the residents of border areas is mainly related to the use of land (agriculture, pastures), water (for drinking and agricultural consumptions), roads and natural resources (including access to construction materials). As the Fergana Valley is one of the most populous regions in Central Asia, access to water, land and other basic infrastructure has become a sensitive issue there.
The recent conflict (April 28-29), which was unprecedented in the history of border disputes between the two countries in terms of severity, happened due to the breach of the status quo in the region. On April 17, the Kyrgyz side began to repair the Galvanov water distribution point on the Isfara river without participation of Tajikistan.
It should be noted that the facility was built by Kyrgyzstan in Tajikistan in the late 1970s to supply water to the border regions of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Since these republics were members of the Soviet Union, they did not have the authority to build such facilities.
According to the 1980 agreement, the distribution of water in this drainage basin was as follows: 55% for Tajikistan, 37% for Kyrgyzstan and 8% for Uzbekistan, which had to be respected even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in the recent years, for various reasons, the share of countries has not been respected and the Tajik farmers have always faced difficulties in irrigating their farms. Since most of the residents of the border areas are engaged in agriculture, the implementation of the previous agreements regarding access to water is very crucial.
IESS: Kyrgyzstan has been embroiled in a number of border disputes in the recent weeks, including the remarks made by the Chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security Kamchybek Tashiev on Vorukh. In your opinion, are these provocations part of a pre-planned strategy, or are they similar to the previous ones? Rezayan: If we look at the issue from a broader perspective and take into account all the conditions of the recent years, it becomes clear that in Kyrgyzstan, the border disputes have always been used for political purposes.
First, in political games, different groups use the issue of resolving border disputes as a privilege or winning card. The experience shows that on the eve of important political events in this country, the issue of border disputes usually becomes more hot. Moreover, when the rivalry between the elites of this country reaches its climax, we can witness a new wave of border debates.
Second, the Kyrgyz officials and representatives of political parties try to adopt a greedy strategy, which usually leads to more distrust. An analysis of border disputes over the past 10 years shows that the neighboring country is not serious about complying with the agreements. This point has been repeatedly made by the Tajik officials.
Third, lack of political will to resolve the issue prolongs the process of border agreements with the neighboring countries. Because Kyrgyzstan has this problem not only with Tajikistan, but also with Uzbekistan. Following the events of October 2020 and the rise of Sadyr Japarov, a number of steps were taken to address the "unresolved issues" with the aim of drawing more public attention to the topic. In this regard, a number of practical and populist steps were taken, the analysis of which requires a separate work.
To answer your question, I have to say that the issue goes back to something beyond the remarks of Kamchybek Tashiev on Vorukh, because since February, different measures have been taken, all of which can be attributed to the pressure exerted by Tajikistan:
First, in February 2021, at the request of Kyrgyzstan, Farqat Abdelfattahov, a resident of Tajikistan's Vorukh region, was arrested in Russia on charges of participating in border riots on March 13, 2019, and has not yet been released. (It should be noted that Rasauddin Tisheov, a resident of the Vorukh region, was also shot dead by the Kyrgyz border guards during the unrest.) But, Abdelfattahov had travelled to Russia on March 19, 2019, and his ticket truly can prove that he had left the country before the unrest. In addition, according to the media reports, the Kyrgyz side has internationally prosecuted about 25 residents of the Vorukh region, which could be considered an unacceptable act aimed at intimidating residents of Tajikistan's border areas.
Second, on March 26, Kamchybek Tashiev's controversial comments about the Vorukh region was published by the media and his proposal regarding the Varukh caused more irritation in the Tajik civil society. In fact, the replacement of a large area with a population of about 40,000, which has historically always been inhabited by the Tajiks, was a serious provocation to destabilize the situation.
Third, in late March, Kyrgyzstan moved its troops to the Tajik borders and held a series of military exercises from April 1st to April 3rd in the village of Bozhum in Batken province to "prepare troops and local officials for emergencies." According to some Kyrgyz experts, the move was aimed at intimidating the Tajik side.
Fourth, on April 17, the Kyrgyz side began to clarify the Galvanov distribution point on the Isfara river without the consent of the Tajik side, which led to displeasure of the residents of Tajik border villages. Such an action was somewhat like provoking the people. On April 28, the Tajik side installed cameras in its territory at the site of the water distribution point to monitor the process of water distribution, which was strongly opposed by neighbors. The Kyrgyz military and security forces attacked the Tajik citizens in civilian clothes and prevented them from installing cameras.
Fifth, on April 27, Tashiev's statement about the construction of a dam on the Khaja Baqir Khan river was reported in the media as an example of a clear violation of the status quo in terms of water usage in the region. According to the media reports, Tashiev said: "We intend to build a dam in the Lilek region, because the drinking water of the Tajik cities of Khujand and Gafurov is almost 100% supplied by us. We have discussed this issue in the government and we will start the construction of the dam this year. If we build this dam, we can solve the border issue quickly."
The statement itself shows that Kyrgyzstan wants to use the water factor as a tool of pressure against Tajikistan to achieve its goals.
The next day, on April 29, the mayor of Tajikistan’s Isfara, arrived at the Galvanov basin to talk and resolve the issue, but was shot and wounded in the arm. A number of local residents were also wounded or killed by gunfire. Moreover, the border checkpoint of "Khajeh Aala" was attacked and the " Galvanov" distribution pint was occupied, which eventually led to an armed conflict.
According to eyewitnesses, on April 26 and 27, Kyrgyzstan evacuated the residents of its border villages, and on April 29, shootings towards Tajik villages began. There were numerous untrue comments in the Kyrgyz media, but none of them answered the following questions:
A. If the Tajik side was truly behind the tension, then how can the "first" and "fifth" points mentioned earlier be explained?
B. The mayor of Isfara was interviewed at the hospital and said he had traveled to the area with the aim of returning the situation to normal. If the Tajik side was behind the conflict, then how could such an action take place?
C. If all this happened at once, then how could the Kyrgyz side be able to move more than 50,000 people in such a short period of time?
It is impossible to find the answers of these three questions in the Kyrgyz media. A realistic and fair investigation of this case shows that tensions and conflicts have been planned in advance and have been on the agenda for the last two months.
IESS: Following the outbreak of the conflict during this period, we saw that the army and heavy military equipment immediately were deployed on both sides. Was there any preparation for these conflicts in Tajikistan or was it just a consequence of the crisis? Rezayan: It should be noted that this was the first time that the Tajik side reacted strongly to the actions of the neighboring country. There have been about 100 conflicts on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border since 2005, mainly leading to the civilian casualties on the Tajik side. It should be noted that, unlike their neighbors, the residents of Tajikistan's border villages have no hunting weapons at all.
Therefore, Tajikistan's move to protect the civilians and its borders was in fact a response to the other side's actions. In addition, on April 29, a meeting of the secretaries of the Security Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization was underway in Dushanbe, and Tajikistan was not interested in such an incident to happen.
IESS: Within the first hours of the clashes, we witnessed a quick ceasefire agreement being issued by the two countries' foreign ministers. Where and how was this ceasefire achieved? Rezayan: This border conflict was not long-lasting, and the two sides quickly sought a peaceful solution. Initially, on April 29, the two countries' foreign ministers had a telephone conversation, emphasizing the need to declare a ceasefire and resolve the issue through negotiations. On the same night in the town of Isfara, talks between the two countries were held, chaired by the Chairman of Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security Saimumin Yatimov and Kyrgyzstan's plenipotentiary representative Omurbek Suvanaliev in Kyrgyzstan's Batken province. The two sides agreed to end the armed conflict, return the troops and military equipment to their permanent bases and take preventive measures against any possible escalation.
One of the reasons for the quick ceasefire was that neither side was interested in the continuation of the conflict, because this could lead to numerous problems due to the special conditions of the Fergana Valley.
IESS: The issue of Vorukh was one of the key issues in the recent clashes, which had previously been the subject of speculations, which was denied by Emomali Rahmon. In your opinion, did the Kyrgyz side really look for the occupation of Vorukh? Given the lack of geographical coherence, what is the solution to the problem of Vorukh? Rezayan: Many years ago, the existence of the "island territories" (areas surrounded by Kyrgyzstan) was described by the Kyrgyz expert as a threat to the country's national interests and security. According to the Kyrgyz sources, there are six "islands" in the territory of Kyrgyzstan that the other sides does not recognize them as being surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. The Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently met with residents of the Vorukh region and made it clear that the issue of exchanging Vorukh with another territory would not be raised during the entire negotiations with Kyrgyzstan and that such an issue would never be considered.
Kyrgyzstan's actions over the past three months show that such a goal has been set and that they have tried to resolve the issue in their favor as much as possible.
IESS: Given the fact that today the Vorukh region is considered as an island in the territory of Kyrgyzstan, what do you think is the solution to this problem and other border disputes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan? Rezayan: From Tajikistan’s point of view, unlike that of Kyrgyzstan, Vorukh is not an island region. According to the Soviet era documents, Vorukh is geographically connected to Tajikistan because the surrounding lands were leased to the Kyrgyz side for a certain period of time. Therefore, until the intergovernmental commission has not issued a relevant decision and this decision is not signed by the heads of the two states and approved by the parliament, the label of the "island" region for Vorukh is inappropriate. I believe that solving the border disputes between the two countries will be possible by observing the following principles:
-Solving the border issues through the bilateral talks;
-Observing the method and framework of negotiations and publishing their results in the media;
-Understanding the sensitivity of the issue as well as the mutual interests;
-Reducing the provocations and spread of false news in the media;
-Not imposing new requirements and avoiding to violate the existing situation before signing the bilateral agreement;
-Moving towards the joint use of water, land and other infrastructure, etc.
In general, the solution to this problem will be possible and acceptable only through diplomacy and politics. Now, the Joint Border Commission is actively negotiating to determine the border line, and the return of the process to a diplomatic solution is definitely a positive phenomenon. At present, the main issue for Tajikistan is the reconstruction of the damaged houses in border villages that have been destroyed during the conflict. According to the order of the president of Tajikistan, this should be done within a month.
IESS: In your opinion, which countries' experience can be used in resolving the border problems with Kyrgyzstan? Rezayan: There are different experiences in the world in terms of resolving the border disputes, whose common aspect is the existence of political will and respecting to each other's interests. There is no ready-made model for Fergana Valley, because some unique features keep the conditions of the region sensitive. Therefore, the emerging experience of the regional countries will be enough to solve this problem. In addition, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan managed to define a border line between the two countries in 2018, which is a positive experience for all of the Central Asian countries.
IESS: What is your opinion regarding the interests of major and rival powers such as Russia, the United States and China in the border tensions of the region? Are some of them interested in fanning the flames of border disputes in the sensitive valley of Fergana? Rezayan: If there is no room for tension and conflict in Central Asia, none of the great powers will be able to influence the situation of the region.
The studies on the border disputes shows that the four main issues of land (for cultivation and rangelands), water (drinking water and water for irrigating farms), roads and natural resources (including access to construction materials) have always been the causes of border tensions, and the provocative actions and lack of political will to solve them on the basis of common interests have complicated the situation.
In the event of a prolonged conflict in the Fergana Valley, each of these powers will join this process in order to fulfill their own demands. A clear example of this is the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan, which has further complicated the situation and kept it in the grip of its geopolitical games.
In general, Russia and China are not interested in any kind of regional instability, because Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the top two members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This means that there is a close bilateral and multilateral cooperation between these countries.
The United States has created a new "5+1" framework for expanding cooperation with the countries in the region, which Democrats are expected to accelerate this process after taking power in Washington. The United States is working to connect Central Asia to South Asia, a plan that will be possible if there is stability.
IESS: Russia has previously offered to mediate in border disputes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which was not welcomed by Dushanbe and Bishkek. This time, Moscow has made a similar proposal. Do you think it will be accepted or not? Rezayan: The main feature of border dispute in the Fergana Valley can be summed up in the fact that despite its complexity, governments are fully able to control and resolve it. Therefore, it is in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan's interest to set the border boundaries bilaterally, because it will prevent the intervention of the world powers.
If, for example, Russia enters this process, naturally its rivals will also enter, which will not be in the interest of the countries in the region.
However, it is very important to address this issue at the level of Central Asia, because these countries are most interested in maintaining stability and security in the region.
IESS:Tajikistan's defense minister visited Iran more than a month ago, and the two countries agreed to set up a joint defense and military working group. How do you think these conflicts, as an acute security crisis, will affect the process of defense cooperation between Iran and Tajikistan? Rezayan: Tajikistan is pursuing a multifaceted approach in foreign policy and is interested in expanding cooperation with all the global and regional powers. The key point is respecting the mutual interests, which should always be taken into account. The relations between Tajikistan and Iran went through a special phase due to certain reasons, for which no one can blame Tajikistan.
In general, during the last two years, following the appointment of new ambassadors, the bilateral relations have improved and the senior officials of the two countries, including the foreign ministers, have held several meetings. This means that there is a natural need for expansion of ties, and from this perspective, the joint interactions can be justified.
Tajikistan relies heavily on a bilateral solution to its border issues with Kyrgyzstan, and it is acceptable to do so.
Given the current situation, the defense cooperation between Iran and Tajikistan can be related to the issue of the two countries' neighborhood with Afghanistan, which becomes more important with the possibility of the withdrawal of the US troops from this country and the unpredictable outcome of the Afghan peace talks.