Date first published: 01/03/2022
Key sectors: all
Key risks: interstate conflict
At least one person was killed and 23 people were injured during the most recent clashes between Tajik and Kyrgyz citizens over the two countries’ contested border. While authorities managed to establish a ceasefire and the area has been calm since then, another violence can erupt at any time as the two countries have failed to find a long-term solution to the dispute.
Why it matters
The unresolved dispute over the borders is likely to cause another eruption of violence. While it often remains limited in scale, there is a risk that it could develop into a wider conflict. In April 2021 at least 55 people were killed and more than 40,000 civilians were displaced in three-day-long heavy clashes. Tajik and Kyrgyz governments halted the violence by sighing a ceasefire agreement but so far have failed to propose a solution that would solve the issue for good. Meanwhile, grievances between locals are growing due to the increasingly scarce resources the two groups share.
The border issues in Central Asia can be dated back to the beginning of the Soviet Union (USSR). When soviet nation-builders came to the region, they found largely tribal communities not functioning in the states we know today. The first task to integrate them into the Union was to create modern nation-states with their own authorities, culture and borders. As Soviet understanding of a nation was centred around language and culture, the borders were drawn to connect groups that shared these attributes. This resulted in Central Asian borders being particularly complicated with numerous enclaves and exclaves, particularly in Fergana Valley shared with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Complicated borders did not prove to be a huge problem under the USSR. However, this changed after the dissolution of the Union and the establishment of independent Central Asian states in 1991.
The border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is 900km long, however, according to governments’ figures, only 504 kilometres have been demarcated. The lack of demarcation makes it complicated to determine in which territory are local villages or important infrastructure facilities located. This not only cause disputes over land but also over water resources. The risk of water disputes can be illustrated in the April 2021 conflict. The fighting started after the Tajik side tried to set up a video camera to monitor the local water intake station in order to keep an eye on Kyrgyz use of the shared resource. They presumably reacted to the previous Kyrgyz side’s effort to repair the station. This underscores the two group’s concerns that the other party could attempt to prevent them from accessing water resources. The mutual mistrust will be likely further elevated by climate change which can significantly reduce river runoff, the most important water source in the region.
Increasing water scarcity is likely to feed mutual mistrust and grievances. Therefore, further violence between locals is all but certain. Moreover, the core of the issue is unlikely to be resolved any time soon for two specific reasons. First, the governments would have to come up with a solution that would be acceptable for both groups. This might be difficult due to the high level of hatred between Tajik and Kyrgyz citizens living in the area. Second, both governments led by Sadyr Japarov in Kyrgyzstan and Emomali Rahmon in Tajikistan are unlikely to make concessions as they would have to walk back their own nationalist tendencies. The prospects for the resolution of the disputes are thus dim.