13.05.2022 Author: Dmitry Bokarev

What is Preventing the Conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan from Escalating?


Conflicts between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards frequently break on the border between the two nations, and civilians living in nearby settlements end up suffering as a result. The main reason for the conflicts is the fact that in certain regions the border is not clearly defined, making it impossible to determine where one nation’s territory ends and the other’s begins.

Less than a month ago, on April 12 2022, there was an armed clash on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A division of Kyrgyz border guards based in Selkan, in the Leilek district of Batken Region came across a group of Tajik border guards in an adjoining area. The latter, when they noticed the Kyrgyz servicemen, continued their progress towards the accepted border line. The Kyrgyz border guards ordered them to move back from the border and return to Tajik territory, but instead of complying the Tajik group crossed the border and penetrated some 20 meters into Kyrgyz territory.

According to the Kyrgyz authorities, the Kyrgyz border guards were forced to fire warning shots, and the Tajik guards opened fire in response. In the resulting exchange of fire a Tajik border guard was wounded. Shortly afterwards, the border guard commanders from both nations met for talks, which lasted half an hour. But the two sides were unable to come to an agreement, and another round of firing broke out, which also lasted for about 30 minutes. During this shoot-out one of the Kyrgyz border guards was wounded. Soon after this incident it was reported that Tajik border guards had fired mortars at the Kyrgyz settlement of Dostuk.

Immediately following this incident the media reported that Tajikistan had started to position its armed forces along the border with Kyrgyzstan. It should be noted that the two countries’ military capacities are fairly evenly matched – both nations have about 10,000 servicemen and their weaponry is broadly comparable both in quantity and in terms of its performance and technical specifications.

The day after the above incident, on April 13 2022, representatives of both countries held talks, as a result of which three documents relating to the border were drawn up. These documents were signed by the heads of the two countries’ border guard services. The two parties negotiated an agreement on the withdrawal of troops from both sides of the border and their return to their regular bases. The representatives of both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also agreed to conduct a full investigation of the incident in order to determine exactly what had caused the exchange of fire between the border guards.

This clash, as already noted, was not the first to occur on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. Incidents of this kind take place on a regular basis, and are damaging political relations between the two countries. They are also having a wider, and much more serious impact. After all, both countries are following a similar geopolitical path, with a focus on strengthening relations between each other and with Russia and China, their main foreign partners, and these border clashes are posing an obstacle to the establishment of constructive dialogue between all parties.

News of the border clashes has, quite naturally, had an effect on public opinion, and citizens of both countries have taken to exchanging insults. Clearly, this could, in the future, lead to very serious consequences.

Tajikistan, with a population of some 9.5 million, has a Kyrgyz community of around 50,000. And Kyrgyzstan, with a population of 6.4 million, is home to about 50,000 Tajiks. The border clashes and the resulting upsurge in nationalist sentiments are clearly putting these minority communities at risk.

Russia frequently acts as a mediator in disputes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan is home to Russia’s 201st military base. This base, one of the most combat-ready military facilities in Tajikistan, serves as a guarantor of the country’s sovereignty. In addition, in December 2021 Russia and Tajikistan signed an agreement on an integrated air-defense system.

In Kyrgyzstan, Russia has the use of the Kant Air base, which allows it to exercise control over airspace in Central Asia. Unfortunately most of the aircraft used by Kyrgyzstan’s Air Force are out of date, and the Russian presence is therefore very important for Kyrgyzstan’s national defense.

On April 12 2022, the date of the border clash referred to earlier in this article, Lieutenant General Yuri Grekhov, head of the Coordination Committee for Air Defense, which reports to the CIS Council of Defense Ministers, announced that Russia would sign an agreement with Kyrgyzstan on an integrated air defense system, similar to the agreement already signed with Tajikistan. He added that Russia and Kyrgyzstan were currently in the process of approving the terms of the draft agreement.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are both members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). As readers will remember, it was the very sensible intervention of the CSTO in Kazakhstan in January 2022 that saved that country from mass bloodshed. These events clearly demonstrated the important role played by the CSTO in containing violent unrest and instability in the region. One of the CSTO’s main missions is to prevent major conflicts between member states, and this has significantly helped to minimize the border conflicts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

On April 17 2022, during a meeting with residents of the Tajik city of Isfara, not far from the border with Kyrgyzstan, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon stated that he supported the holding of direct negotiations to resolve the border issues. He described the agreement and marking of an official border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as a priority issue, adding that discussions on this question had been dragging on for two decades, since 2002. He stated that to date about 70% of the border had been agreed. He added that the search for a mutually acceptable consensus on the border issue was not an easy process, and required a great deal of time and effort.

Sadyr Japarov, elected as President of Kyrgyzstan in 2021, has also talked about his plans to put an end to the border dispute – something he hopes to achieve by the end of his six-year term of office. He called on citizens to refrain from spreading false rumors and avoid responding to provocations. He added that finding a solution to the current situation would take a great deal of time, effort and patience.

In view of the armed clashes, the delineation of the state border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is an urgent issue, and clearly the leaders of both countries need to be ready for dialog if it is to be resolved. This lingering dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan dates back to the breakup of the USSR in 1991, and is a serious obstacle to the development of the two countries’ partnership both with each other and with their key partners – Russia and China.

The creation of a demilitarized zone along the border would help to bring a swift end to the conflict, and it is to be hoped that this can be done in the near future. Unfortunately the governments of both countries have repeatedly refused the assistance of both Russia and the CSTO in dealing with this highly complex problem. It is possible, however, given the current rise in global political tensions, that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will reconsider their stance on this issue and ask for Russia’s support in resolving this long-drawn-out territorial dispute.

Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.