The September-December 2023 period witnesses significant progress in the harmonization of the most territorially disputed border in Central Asia, namely the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Of the nearly 1,000 kilometers of the line separating the two republics, almost 400 kilometers remained uncoordinated for many years Now the parties are announcing deadlines for the completion of all work designed to exhaust the conflict potential of the problem.
Work on harmonizing the Tajik-Kyrgyz border intensified in October 2023 – almost 75 kilometers of the border were agreed upon during two meetings of high-level representatives. On December 11, in his official statement, President of the Kyrgyz Republic Sadyr Japarov declared that the border of the two countries would be finalized by the spring of 2024. On December 1 and 12, the co-chairmen of the government delegations of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on the delimitation and demarcation of the Tajik-Kyrgyz state border met. At the last meeting to this point, it was announced that the parties had agreed on 90% of the boundary.
As a result of these meetings, bilateral protocols were signed; however, their content was not published on the official portals of the governments of the two states. The talks are taking place in a rather closed format and without the participation of the public and international mediators.
Disputes over a number of border territories have been going on in the region since the very emergence of this border. Paradoxically, at the dawn of the USSR it first separated the Uzbek SSR and the RSFSR. Until the late 1920s, the territory of present-day Tajikistan was part of the Uzbek SSR: at the same time, until 1936, Kara-Kyrgyz was first an enclave autonomous region within the RSFSR, and an autonomous SSR later.
In the late 1920s, when the main phase of border demarcation took place, the distribution of settlements on the sides of the border was based on the ethnic factor – the so-called “ethnic demarcation” took place. However, not all sections of the border consisted of a string of mono-ethnic settlements: for example, in the Ferghana Valley, which accounts for a significant (and the most conflictual) part of the current border between the two countries, there was a mixed population – in one town or village there were significant diasporas of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz.
The crisis of “interethnic division” was also manifested later, in the 1930s, during the economic development and reorganization of this part of Central Asia: collectivization came here in those years, as a result of which large collective farms began to form in the transboundary zone. Since each of them was a structure with an independent resource base (as a rule, we are talking about pastures or agricultural lands, as well as water resources), for the normal functioning of farms and their resource supply it was necessary to extend collective farm territories on the opposite side of the border. In those days such a circumstance was not condemned by anyone. The border was nominal and open, and the Bolsheviks held power on both sides of it.
The first escalation of the cross-border conflict took place back in 1989, in the wake of ethnic strife across the Soviet Union. At that time, the borders were still nominal, but they were increasingly manifested in the mind of the inhabitants of the adjacent areas, among whom ethnic and political self-awareness was emerging.
Not surprisingly, the cross-border conflict that escalated at the end of the Soviet era has spread to the age of independent existence of the Central Asian republics. Disputes between politicians, scientists and public figures of the two states regarding some areas are still going on: the Tajik side thinks that Kyrgyzstan retains a part of the territories of the republic, referring to the fact that the borders of the Tajik SSR (and the Republic of Tajikistan as its legal successor) should be determined by the documents of 1924-1927, 1932 and 1936 due to the fact that these were the years when the territories of the republics were exchanged in the framework of the procedure established in the Constitution of the USSR. According to experts from Tajikistan, further changes were not political but economic in nature: This distinction between “legal” and “illegal” border changes was established by the Special Commission of the USSR Supreme Soviet to determine the border between the republics, convened in 1990 by mutual consent of the republics immediately after the first escalation of the border conflict.
At the same time, representatives of political and scientific circles of Kyrgyzstan note that the very collapse of the USSR, which led to the formation of sovereign republics, was not at all according to constitutional procedures, and insist on the preservation of the actual configuration of the disputed areas of the border, which existed at the time of the collapse of the unified state.
The last major clashes between local populations (less frequent-border clashes) occurred in 2014, 2021, and 2022. Killed and wounded were reported on both sides.
The dispute between the two countries has already spread to international organizations. For example, in September last year, Tajikistan’s foreign minister accused the Kyrgyz side in his speech at the UN of “keeping 211,000 hectares of land plots on the legal territory of the Republic of Tajikistan”. Also, Kyrgyzstan’s creation of the Batken oblast in 1999, in which the disputed areas were included, with further adoption of the law “On the special status of the Batken oblast” in 2021, which implies militarization of this region, was proclaimed as an act of violation of the territorial integrity of Tajikistan.
The current breakthrough in overcoming the two countries’ disputes over their joint border may be due to a number of different factors. It is very likely that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have come to an agreement because of the need to ensure stability and security for prospective transportation, infrastructure and energy highways that are planned to run either across the border of the two countries or in close proximity to it. We are talking about the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project supported during the China-Central Asia Summit 2023, as well as Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s prospective plans to create an international transmission line to export electricity from the two countries to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In this regard, peace and security in the Ferghana Valley is an important condition for the transportation and infrastructure, trade and economic development of the entire region. An important condition for progress was Uzbekistan’s political rapprochement with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which began to gain momentum in 2018: recall that Uzbekistan is also a party to the territorial disputes around the Ferghana Valley. To summarize, one of the main impulses to resolve the Tajik-Kyrgyz disputes could be the significant increase in the interdependence of the Central Asian republics in the context of new Eurasian transport and energy projects observed from the beginning of 2023.
Boris Kushkhov, the Department for Korea and Mongolia at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.