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Qishloq Ovozi

Fighting again broke out along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. This time, the intensity of the battles was far worse and more widespread than anything seen before.

Feuding factions on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border implemented a cease-fire on the evening of April 29 that ended some 24 hours of the worst and most widespread fighting the restive region has seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Tensions between the Kyrgyz and Tajik communities along their common border have been building for years and evolved from fistfights to throwing sticks and stones and, more recently, to shoot-outs that sometimes involve mortars and grenade-launchers.

That was the case with the latest violence, which has left as many as two dozen dead and at least 150 wounded on both sides.

What Happened?

It started on April 28, in the Kyrgyz village of Kok-Tash, a known flashpoint for problems going back to January 2013 when a fight started in a store between a group of young Tajik men from Chorkuh and local Kyrgyz.

On April 29, fighting between local residents grew and, according to reports from Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz and Tajik security forces started exchanging gunfire.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said the Tajik side was also using heavy machine guns and mortars.

That report was unable to be independently confirmed, but there were also reports of Tajik forces using mortars in these border disputes in January 2014 and May 2020.

But what's significant is that this latest fighting spread to other areas along the border, something that did not previously happen.

Most of the thousands of Kyrgyz who fled the area have gone to the city of Batken.
Most of the thousands of Kyrgyz who fled the area have gone to the city of Batken.

Tajik security forces are reported to have taken control of areas along the road that leads from Tajikistan's Vorukh exclave to Tajikistan proper. Kyrgyz villages along the route were deserted and many homes, shops, and vehicles had been burned.

Most of the thousands of Kyrgyz who fled the area have gone to the city of Batken, the regional capital.

The UKMK said Tajik forces attacked three Kyrgyz border posts -- Kapchagai, Min-Bulak, and Dostuk -- and the border checkpoints at Kojogar and Bulak-Bashi.

Several border posts were reportedly on fire.

RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, reported that the mayor of Isfara city, Bahovaddin Bahodurzoda, had a gunshot wound to the shoulder.

A correspondent from Ozodi said there were also casualties among Tajiks in Vorukh and the village of Khoja A’lo, but it was impossible to confirm as doctors and local officials had been told not to speak with the media.

How It All Began

This latest incident started when a small group of Tajik citizens were seen on the evening of April 28 trying to set up a monitoring camera at a water intake station at Kok-Tash.

The intake station releases water into canals going to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Kyrgyz citizens confronted the Tajiks about the action. Angry words led to scuffles and then to stones being thrown, with people from Kok-Tash and nearby Khoja A’lo joining the fight.

Tajiks had been watching the intake station since April 17, when Kyrgyz workers were seen making repairs. The Tajiks lodged a protest that they had not been previously informed.

The repair work stopped, but the episode is an example of how these conflicts start.

As trust along this part of the border has waned, any unilateral attempt to build or repair roads or other infrastructure is quickly met with crowds of people from the other country demanding that the work stop.

There are always suspicions, particularly involving road work around the Vorukh exclave.

Anytime the Kyrgyz side starts work on the road in the area, the residents of Vorukh worry that it will lead to a route that detours around the exclave and could make it easy to totally cut off Vorukh from Tajikistan.

So Vorukh residents come out of the exclave and try to stop construction work.

As the Ozodi correspondent pointed out, the road is closed, so it is currently impossible for anyone from Tajikistan to reach Vorukh by car.

Any work on sources of water -- canals or intake stations -- brings the same response from either side.

Earlier in April, Kyrgyz authorities announced plans to construct a reservoir on a river (Kozu-Baglan in Kyrgyzstan and Khojaboqirgon in Tajikistan) that brings water to both countries.

Tajikistan quickly protested the plan, saying it could interfere with the flow of water to several districts in northern Tajikistan.

This area is particularly susceptible to such ethnic flare-ups because the people living there are the victims of a state border that did not exist during centuries of people living in this area.

The current configuration of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border is the product of Soviet mapmakers drawing the dividing lines for Soviet republics. After the U.S.S.R. collapsed in late 1991, these became the borders of independent countries.

Roads and waterways crisscross this border in many places and only some 504 kilometers of the approximately 970-kilometer Kyrgyz-Tajik frontier has been demarcated.

Talks on border demarcation have been slow, but the new leadership in Kyrgyzstan under President Sadyr Japarov has been actively and very publicly pushing negotiations to finish border talks with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan’s UKMK is in charge of the country’s Border Guard Service.

The head of the UKMK, Kamchybek Tashiev, suggested at the end of March that part of a border deal with Tajikistan could include transferring ownership of the Vorukh exclave to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for land that is adjacent to Tajikistan.

The proposal angered some in Tajikistan and led to claims from the Tajik side that not only Vorukh but the lands around it were historically Tajik.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon made a rare visit to Vorukh on April 7 and said there had never been and would never be any discussion of giving Vorukh to Kyrgyzstan.

Tashiev was not in Kyrgyzstan when the violence started on April 28, having left earlier to an unnamed country the same day for medical treatment.

No Good Way Out

The level of distrust was already sky-high between the two communities before the latest fighting.

These eruptions of violence along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border have been occurring sporadically for the last 15 years.

It started with rocks thrown at cars, cars being stopped and passengers beaten, then progressed to sticks and stones being thrown and orchards and homes being destroyed.

It has increasingly involved the police of the two countries, as well as border guards and soldiers, and has reached the point where guns are regularly used by both sides. Civilians are sometimes pulling the trigger.

As just happened again, officials from both countries rush to the site, agree to measures that aim to ease the tensions, promise to tell their forces not to use weapons, and send out officials to speak with the affected communities and calm them.

There have been joint border patrols, joint gatherings of residents for holidays, meetings of top government officials, meetings of local officials, and meetings of community leaders. But it seems very few residents of these border areas put any trust in a cease-fire or joint actions to ease tensions.

They never seem to last very long.

And worse, the scale of violence and use of weapons has gradually been increasing, making almost every new conflict a bit worse than the previous one.

The agriculturally rich Ferghana Valley has been a source of tension between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan for decades.

A meeting occurred in Central Asia on April 23 that apparently hasn't ever happened before.

The governor of Uzbekistan's eastern Ferghana Province met with the Tajik and Kyrgyz governors of the adjoining provinces for talks on economic cooperation.

Hosted in the city of Ferghana by Hayrullo Bozorov, the meeting was attended by the governor of Tajikistan's Sughd Province, Rajabboi Ahmadzoda, and the governor of Kyrgyzstan's Batken Province, Omurbek Suvanaliev.

Nearly 30 years after the three countries became independent, the meeting marked the first time the heads of the three neighboring provinces had ever gathered.

The three provinces are all in the populous Ferghana Valley, an agriculturally rich area that has also become a major smuggling route and, since independence, has seen more deadly violence along its borders than any other area in Central Asia.

And one of the interesting aspects of the business forum, officially called Integration Of Borders – The Key To Development, is that it was purely about trade and cultural relations, not border demarcation.

Batken Province Governor Omurbek Suvanaliev (file photo)
Batken Province Governor Omurbek Suvanaliev (file photo)

Suvanaliev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, that although "the matter of defining the borders is being decided, it is necessary for us also to strengthen economic ties."

And he made clear that the vital demarcation of the three countries' borders "is the work of intergovernmental delegations."

All three governors were accompanied by delegations from local industrial and agricultural businesses and there was also an exhibit of their products.

The only document reportedly signed was a memorandum of cooperation between the Ferghana and Sughd provinces.

It was ironic that the venue for the landmark business forum was the Islam Karimov Theater.

Late Uzbek President Islam Karimov
Late Uzbek President Islam Karimov

While Karimov was Uzbekistan's first president, his country set up long barbed-wire fences and dug ditches along extensive stretches of its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. During incursions by Islamic militants in the summer of 2000, Uzbekistan even put land mines at places along its borders with its two eastern neighbors.

When Karimov died late in the summer of 2016, Uzbek troops were occupying some areas of Kyrgyzstan.

His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoev, removed those troops as one of his first moves after becoming Uzbekistan's leader.

Mirziyoev also reversed Karimov's policies toward Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and visits by Uzbek officials and business delegations to the neighboring countries are a common occurrence now.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev visiting Ferghana Valley last year.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev visiting Ferghana Valley last year.

Those meetings have gone a long way towards improving Uzbekistan's relations with its two neighbors.

The business forum in Ferghana took this new spirit of cooperation a step further by bringing together the representatives of the three countries that share the fertile Ferghana Valley region.

Though the forum did not result in the signing of large amounts of contracts, the big achievement was the meeting itself.

Though there has been some progress in demarcating and marking the borders in the region despite difficult negotiations, the process is likely to continue to be problematic in the years to come as territory is exchanged and people's property affected.

While border negotiations continue, there is no reason why three of the areas involved in these talks should not move forward by improving economic ties.

The Ferghana business forum was the first step.

And a better economic situation locally should make all three parties more amenable to compromises in their future border negotiations.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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