Escalating Conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik Border: Whither the Regional Security Order?

While the world is following the dissolution of Russian imperialism along Ukrainian frontlines, the existing status quo might be shaken up in other corners, too. The recent escalation of conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the one hand, and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the other, are prime examples. If U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s fresh visit to Armenia brought much-needed attention to the Caucasus, recent events in Central Asia have received barely a mention in international media, despite their profound significance for regional security.

Beginning September 14, Tajik and Kyrgyz forces exchanged sustained gunfire along several points of the undemarcated border between the neighboring Batken and Soghd provinces of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, respectively. After a short ceasefire, on September 16, fierce fighting resumed and extended from the initial border areas deep into the territory of Kyrgyzstan, including the provincial city of Batken and remote areas in Osh province. Despites Kyrgyzstan’s demands for a ceasefire, Tajikistan was unwilling to entertain dialogue and continued regular shelling until September 18.

The attacks on Kyrgyzstan’s territory left at least 59 civilians and servicemen dead at the time of writing, dozens wounded and over 140,000 internally displaced. Hundreds of homes and businesses have been set alight, as NASA fire data attests. The Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on September 18 identifying 35 civilian and military deaths on the Tajik side from Kyrgyzstani shelling. In a statement issued the same day, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Tajik authorities for an act of “planned military aggression” and stressed the “active involvement of irregular paramilitary groups” on the Tajik side.

This escalation is, obviously, not new. As many such conflicts in post-Soviet space and globally, this one is complicated, shaped by a long history of tensions, back and forth negotiations, and human suffering. The Soviet delimitation of national borders in the Fergana Valley, along with land exchanges and land “loans” up to the very end of the Soviet Union, has produced a complex geography, to put it mildly. Locals refer to the border here as a “chess board.” Roads tack in and out of one state and the next. Besides the 984-kilometer-long border, of which only 504 km are demarcated, Kyrgyzstan also hosts two Tajik exclaves, Vorukh and Kayragach. Both sides have disputed ownership over various territories since independence in 1991 using different Soviet maps and agreements as the basis for their claims. Periodic provocations and skirmishes have become part of the everyday life here.

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But while tensions in the region are not new, the scale of military force over the last two years marks a significant and worrying escalation in violence. The first large-scale escalation of the conflict took place on April 28, 2021, when the two parties clashed over Tajikistan’s decision to install video surveillance near the Ak-Suu/Isfara River. The exchange grew into an unprecedented military action, killing 36, wounding hundreds, and displacing 58,000 people on the Kyrgyz side. The Tajik government claimed 19 dead among civilians and servicemen and 87 wounded. This was a dramatic escalation in the nature of tensions between the two countries.

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The escalation was preceded by populist moves by the Kyrgyz government regarding border regulation and resolution of territorial disputes. Territorial sovereignty and border security were part of Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov’s and his ally, head of the State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev’s electoral campaigns in late 2020. Upon coming to power in 2020 and after being elected in early 2021, the government purchased a few Turkish Bayraktar drones and Russian “Tigers” — armored personnel carriers — which replaced old Russian UAZ, off-road vehicles that were easily penetrable by bullets. The government decided to display its new purchases by throwing a military parade in the capital in August 2021, with some of the equipment then transferred to the border area. Government officials also boasted that they would resolve border disputes with Tajikistan soon, perhaps relying on their successful negotiation of border issues with Uzbekistan.

Such a populist approach to border security is dangerous. As Asel Murzakulova, who has spent years researching the border region, has shown, locals understand their security as the ability to go to the market, hospital, and schools — to conduct their lives — free from fear.

On the Tajik side, the regime has been militarizing the border for a long time. In recent years, Tajikistan has received military training and aid on a large scale, including by Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and American forces in relation to Afghanistan. The latest effort in this direction is the opening of a facility to produce Iranian-designed Ababil-2 tactical drones.

This escalation suggests that using the language of “border clash” or “border skirmish” to describe what happened, as various media outlets and commentators have done, obscures more than it illuminates. It implies that recent events are merely a continuation of earlier clashes between border populations, in which loss of life was rare. The current escalation is as different from those earlier conflicts, in intensity and consequence, as mortar fire is from stone-throwing. What occurred in September 2022 is better described as an interstate conflict following a military incursion, one involving heavy weapons and in which civilian property and infrastructure appear to have been deliberately targeted.

It is notable that the current Tajik incursion happened amid a large regional summit, Uzbekistan’s hosting of the leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The summit, in Samarkand, took place just a 350 km away from the area under attack. Other than in a sideline meeting between the Kyrgyz and Tajik presidents on September 16, neither president — nor the host, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev — raised the issue formally within the summit. During two days of summitry, no one mentioned the ongoing aggression formally within the organization.

This silence is telling. While it may be a sign of the lack of real capacity or political will to use the SCO to resolve regional disputes, some regional analysts have also wondered out loud whether the timing is non-coincidental. After all, the first escalation of the conflict in April 2021 occurred in the middle of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit, which was taking place in Dushanbe; that organization made no reference to the outbreak of violence along the host country’s borders.

The whole of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is shaking, with wars between Russia and Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and now between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The states of the former Soviet Union are all observing an ongoing shattering of the existing order with uncertainty and fear. What is next?

The Russia-led CSTO offered diplomatic mediation, but so far the CSTO has been more effective in crushing civic dissent than helping to maintain the fragile peace among its members, despite the fact that both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan host Russian military bases. Ordinary people and experts in the region wonder about the role of Russia in the escalation of conflict. The 16 focus group discussions that Asel Doolotkeldieva, one of this piece’s authors, conducted in spring 2022 in all of Kyrgyzstan’s provinces showed that ordinary citizens were expecting further escalation of conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Many were afraid that Kyrgyzstan’s neutral position regarding the war on Ukraine would cause discontent in Moscow and perhaps lead to Russia’s siding with Tajikistan. Given the CSTO’s systematic failure to respond to security challenges in the region, in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan protesters are currently calling on their governments to leave the organization. In Russia itself, this escalation was presented stereotypically as the “doings of the West,” which seeks to further weaken Russia’s “Southern borderlands.”

What is difficult to gauge are the reasons behind the escalation from the Tajik side. President Emomali Rahmon rules his country with iron fist. A power transfer from father to son appears to be happening against a background of poverty, massive out-migration, and soaring inflation. The last opposition members and civil activists have been chased down in Russia and the regime carries out regular heavy crackdowns on the Ismaili Pamiri minority in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), killing and imprisoning local activists. The near absence of independent media and control over the internet provides Tajik society with little alternative information and makes the population vulnerable to state propaganda.

Yet, as any contemporary society, Tajiks are relatively fragmented, too. Does the creation of an external enemy, such as Kyrgyzstan, facilitate for Rahmon the transition of power and the successful continuation of family rule? Or does the Tajik regime seek to force the border resolution in its favor by military means? Is this about a land grab to allow the creation of a corridor between Isfara and the Vorukh exclave, while the international community is busy with Ukraine? Other suggestions point to the complex political economy of border zones, which include lucrative smuggling of goods, fuel, and drugs. Many questions remain open.

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As for Kyrgyzstan, its dilapidated army and small economy do not allow it to prevent incursions or effectively to defend its territory. The political regime is also fragile. Despite the Japarov regime’s populism, it lacks Rahmon’s expansionist state ideology and has never claimed new territories. It is no secret that Japarov, who came to power in 2020 via popular mobilization, does not enjoy high esteem in Moscow, whose conservative politics is extremely wary of “color revolutions” and the leaders they bring to power. Japarov has also struggled to return trade with China to pre-pandemic levels. His populist policies, corruption, and repressions against political pluralism are severely criticized and challenged at home and abroad.

However, the persistent existence of a robust civil society and independent media that provide alternative information also forces the Kyrgyz government to be more open and accountable. The government’s unpreparedness for the latest aggression has been scrutinized by the domestic audience, many of whom rapidly gathered outside Kyrgyzstan’s White House to demand a firm response as news of the violence spread.

In contrast, Tajik media have closely hewed to government statements in reporting on the conflict. Positioning itself as a security buffer between Afghanistan and Eurasia, Tajikistan made for itself a geopolitical niche, which has earned Rahmon extensive international military and development aid, and shielded him from reproach regarding human right abuses. Kyrgyzstan cannot claim any strategic position in this trade-off for geopolitical attention.

The escalation of conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is a worrying and disillusioning development for the region. Just recently, we witnessed a number of initiatives pushing toward greater unity and cooperation among Central Asian leaders and signs of political will to resolve long-standing border tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The latest violence has shattered those efforts and hopes on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. The escalation of the conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also pulls into question the many international programs regarding border security assistance and conflict prevention, of which both countries were beneficiaries. Furthermore, recurrent and unpredictable incursions make the border area unlivable for tens of thousands of families with children as uncertainty and despair over the future prevail.

Where do we stand now after several decades of securitizing the region? A resulting upsurge in nationalism in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and militarization of a complex border, instilling ever more fear and uncertainty for local communities in the border areas. A new security paradigm is needed, one in which the international community plays a new role in preventing further escalation in the future. While all attention is on Ukraine, the fragile status quo that characterized unresolved conflicts in Central Asia and the Caucasus has been destroyed, with worrying consequences for the stability and security of both regions.