Borders in Central Asia have long been a problem. They were drawn by the Soviet government in the 1920s as part of its nation-building effort to divide the communities of the region, and these administrative lines changed many times over the ensuing decades. Yet, they generally had little impact on the populations that moved back and forth across them without much regard to their existence. Since independence, however, the governments of the region have sought to strengthen these borders as part of their state-building programs, establishing border controls that interfere with the movement of people and creating tensions between populations that had lived together without significant problems in the past.
Nowhere has this predicament been greater than in the border region between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where three main factors exacerbate the situation. First, the shared frontier area is complicated by the presence of numerous enclaves, official and unofficial, in which members of one of the two nations are entirely surrounded by the other. Second, owing to their burgeoning populations and weak economies, the two states struggle to address organized criminal groups and the influx of Islamist radicals from the south. And third, shared border conflicts are more difficult to resolve due to the linguistic and cultural differences between the two nations—the ethnic Kyrgyz speak a Turkic language and the Tajiks a variant of Persian.
As a result, despite working at border delimitation since the end of the Tajik Civil War in the 1990s, the two countries have so far demarcated only 53.5 percent of their common border (520 kilometers out of 970). Moreover, they acknowledge that the 70 most difficult problem areas, including those involving the enclaves, remain unaddressed. Yet, while officials talk—an on-again, off-again process—the populations have often taken matters into their own hands. Since 2015, there have been “more than 150 border incidents.” Most have involved name calling or rock throwing; but since the start of 2019, they have become increasingly violent, with people on both sides using hunting rifles, wounding many, and in, one case, killing a member of the other nationality (Ritm Evrazii, July 31).
The latest clash, which claimed one dead and more than 30 wounded, occurred on July 22–23, at the border between the Tajikistani exclave of Vorukh and the surrounding Kyrgyzstani region. Ethnic-Kyrgyz locals blocked the road between the Tajikistani exclave (overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Tajiks) and Tajikistan proper (TASS, July 22). That road remains blocked, and many officials in both capitals view the situation as deteriorating. Some speculate that the incident was the result of the approaching elections in Kyrgyzstan, when any talk about borders has the potential to scramble the results. Thus, as soon as the violence erupted, authorities from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan dispatched senior officials to the region to try to calm the situation. But they were fired upon and one guard was injured (Fergana News, July 23) even after they announced that the two governments would set up joint patrols to try to restore calm (Gov.kg, July 23).
On July 26, the two presidents, Sooronbay Zheenbekov of Kyrgyzstan and Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan, came to the area and declared they were committed to accelerating talks about the border. Both, however, notably failed to announce any progress on the Vorukh issue that had sparked the deadly violence earlier or on any of the other 70 still-disputed locations (Kabar, July 26; 24.kg, July 27). As such, the two heads of state repeated the pattern of the past rather than breaking out of it: waiting until there is violence, expressing regret, but then not addressing the problem promptly. Consequently, many in the region predict that there will be more violence ahead and that, now that the two sides have used firearms, it may prove more deadly (CentrAsia, July 23).
This is the second border clash since the start of this year that has resulted in deaths (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, March 15), and some wonder whether there is any way to stop it. Five years ago, Tajikistanis asked for the establishment of a transportation corridor between Tajikistan proper and Vorukh, a piece of land about 600 meters wide and 3 kilometers long. In exchange, Dushanbe said it was prepared to offer territory of an equivalent size to Kyrgyzstan anywhere along the border. Such a shift might have reduced tensions by eliminating a major point of contention (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 21). But Bishkek has been unwilling to even consider the proposal, given how sensitive border changes have been since it adjusted its frontier with China. The government believes that people affected by any border shift would object, possibly violently.
Further complicating the situation—though also containing within it the possibility of a larger bargain—is that Kyrgyzstan has exclaves inside Tajikistan—within the always-restive BatkenOblast. If the border between the two countries was redrawn to eliminate all the exclaves in one go, the two countries might find it easier to cooperate on many other issues. However, AleksandrKnyazev, a Moscow-based specialist on Central Asia, says there is another reason why both sides are reluctant to move in that direction: some political groups in the capitals routinely use these exclaves, both Tajik and Kyrgyz, to generate ethnic nationalism. Those groups have no interest in a solution that would cost them influence.
Consequently, despite the violence and the assurances of the two presidents, more violence is probable before any political solution is likely—a scenario that drug traffickers, Islamist militants and outside powers are all likely to exploit.