Conflict Alerts # 503, 20 April 2022
In the news
On 14 April, Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister Ruslan Kazakbaev and Tajikistan’s foreign minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin in a telephonic conversation discussed the situation along with disputed segments of the border between the two Central Asian nations and renewed border clashes. Following the conversation, Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry said that Kazakbaev and Muhriddin "agreed to continue discussions on further steps to resolve border issues."
On 12 April, a Tajik border guard was killed in a shoot-out while two Kyrgyz border guards and four Kyrgyz civilians were wounded in the incident that took place in a disputed segment along the border. Following the incident, the governor of Kyrgyzstan's southern region of Batken said that Kyrgyz-Tajik talks on the situation ended overnight with an agreement to withdraw additional armed forces from both sides. The governor added, "It was agreed that the two sides' police will take joint control over the border segment crossing the Konibodom-Khujand highway. Special explanatory works will be held among locals residing close to the border area to ensure they are aware of the situation."
Issues at large
First, the dispute over border demarcations. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan share a 971-kilometre border, however, only 519 kilometres are properly delineated. At present, the two countries have about 70 unresolved border disputes. The main problem stems from the two republics using two different geopolitical maps; Tajikistan operates with maps from 1924-to 1939, while Kyrgyzstan uses maps from 1958 to 1959. This difference in border demarcations has resulted in unresolved issues related to the distribution of water and land and illegal border crossings. The fighting at the border reached an unprecedented scale in April 2021, in which over 50 people were killed and over 300 wounded in a clash on the border.
Second, increased military action. In the past skirmishes and occasional low-level violence at the border took place between Kyrgyz and Tajik border communities. However, the recent clashes involve the military forces. Thus, in contrast to the previous clashes, which usually involved stone-throwing and other forms of low-level violence, armoured vehicles, military helicopters, mortar shelling, and other heavy military equipment are being used by the two countries.
Third, the lack of dialogue. Over the years several efforts at negotiating delimitation have taken place but have yielded no results. The leadership of both countries remain hesitant to take up serious negotiation over the dispute. Additionally, the dispute has been used by political leaders, who have calculatedly used it to secure popular opinion.
Fourth, the role of external actors. There has been no response from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s neighbours and international partners to take up the role of mediator. While most Central Asian republics have unresolved border issues hindering them from taking up the role, countries such as Russia and China chose not to get directly involved in the matter.
First, the increasing militarization of the border raises the potential for violence. With border forces engaging in the conflict, the risk of increased violence is only inevitable. This is already seen with the frequent clashes between the two sides' border forces being reported along the border. Second, unlikely inter-state war. While the intensity may have increased it is unlikely that a full-blown interstate war would take place. However, the frequency and intensity of the clashes highlight the increasing interstate conflicts in the region. The conflict is likely to take on a cyclic characteristic unless the two sides decide on resolving the disputes.