As deadly violence erupted on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border last week, two peaceful Kyrgyz-majority districts of Tajikistan -- located hundreds of kilometers away from the conflict zone -- found themselves dragged into media reports of “evictions” and “deportations.”
Kyrgyz media falsely reported that Tajikistan began deporting ethnic Kyrgyz from its Lakhsh and Murghob districts, sparking a barrage of angry social-media comments.
RFE/RL contacted authorities in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- including local mayors and police -- as well as several ethnic Kyrgyz in Lakhsh to establish what was happening. It also contacted several residents of Kyrgyzstan who say they know people who were deported from Tajikistan.
Neither Tajik nor Kyrgyz officials could confirm reports that ethnic Kyrgyz were being sent out of Tajikistan.
But both sides said in recent years and months, Tajik authorities have indeed been telling ethnic Kyrgyz they cannot obtain Kyrgyz passports unless they first renounce their Tajik citizenship.
Tajikistan doesn’t allow dual nationality with any foreign country except for Russia. Kyrgyzstan prohibits dual citizenship with any of its bordering states -- Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and China.
“We do indeed tell people that they must choose between the two citizenships,” Faizullo Barotzoda, the mayor of Lakhsh district, told RFE/RL on May 5.
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But the mayor insisted “the requirement is not related to the latest border conflict” between the two Central Asian countries.
Over the past year, about 100 ethnic Kyrgyz from Lakhsh have given up their Tajik citizenship and chosen to keep their Kyrgyz passports, Barotzoda said. About the same number of people decided to renounce their Kyrgyz passports and keep their Tajik citizenship, he added.
Asked about deportations of ethnic Kyrgyz from Tajikistan, Barotzoda said: “There have been cases in which Kyrgyz citizens who violated the immigration rules -- a 60-day, visa-free stay -- were deported from Tajikistan.”
But he said he wasn’t aware of any such deportation since the border conflict erupted on April 28.
Barotzoda did, however, give RFE/RL a list of 42 Tajik citizens, most of them ethnic Kyrgyz, who were sent back to Tajikistan through the Karamik border crossing between May 3 and May 6.
RFE/RL has asked Kyrgyzstan’s Border Service for comment but had not received a response as of May 7.
The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry claimed it knows of Tajikistan’s “expulsions of Kyrgyz citizens, both those visiting or permanently living in Lakhsh.” But it offered no evidence of the claim.
The ministry added on May 4 that it’s been closely watching the situation since mid-March amid reports of unannounced inspections of ethnic Kyrgyz people’s documents by Tajik authorities in Lakhsh.
Meanwhile, in the town of Murghob in eastern Tajikistan, district Mayor Husniya Rajabzoda said “no deportations” are taking place. Ethnic Kyrgyz make up 60 percent of Murghob’s population of some 16,000 people.
In Kyrgyzstan, the border service of the State Committee for National Security denied statements by the head of a Russian human rights organization that some Tajiks flying in from Russia had been beaten at airports in Bishkek and Osh since the border violence in late April.
Valentina Chupik, a Moscow-based human rights activist, said Kyrgyz officials should "do something with their employees" at the airports to prevent the harassment, which she claimed included beatings and extortion.
Tajik citizen Khursandmurod Khomidov, who flew from Russia to Osh on his return to Tajikistan on April 30, said he and several others were ordered to pay money at the Osh airport and later were beaten by Kyrgyz border guards at the border.
And Nuriddin Ilyosov, a Tajik citizen studying at Osh University, told RFE/RL that Kyrgyz guards extorted money from him at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border crossing at Dustlik.
In Lakhsh, ethnic Kyrgyz schoolteacher Bakhtiyor Aitmatov told RFE/RL that Kyrgyz and Tajiks communities live peacefully and are unaffected by the border violence that occurred some 700 kilometers away from his village.
“I didn’t hear about anyone being kicked out of their homes. I’m hearing it for the first time now from you,” Aitmatov said, when asked about reports of deportations from Lakhsh.
Ethnic Kyrgyz make up just over half of the Lakhsh district’s 57,000 people, which was previously named Jirgatol and is located in Tajikistan’s Rasht Valley.
“Kyrgyz and Tajiks are very much integrated [and] mixed marriages are very common in Lakhsh,” Aitmatov said.
Aitmatov lives in the Lakhsh town of Jirgatol, where he works at a school attended by both Kyrgyz and Tajik students. He said several people in his extended family have married ethnic Tajiks, and their children consider themselves both Kyrgyz and Tajik.
The family keeps close contact with Aitmatov’s elder brother and two uncles who moved to Kyrgyzstan permanently several years ago and received Kyrgyz citizenship.
Under a program called Kairylman (a returnee), Kyrgyzstan offers citizenship for ethnic Kyrgyz who move to the country from abroad. Tens of thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz have obtained citizenship since the program was launched in 2007.
Separately, thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz relocated from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan during the Tajik civil war in the 1990s.
During that war, Kyrgyzstan also offered asylum for hundreds of Tajiks who fled the violence in their home country.
'Six Hours To Leave'
Akimalidin Kalbekov, a resident of Kyrgyzstan’s Chui Province, offers a different story.
Citing a friend from Lakhsh, Kalbekov told RFE/RL that ethnic Kyrgyz who don’t want to give up their Kyrgyz passports are being forced to leave Tajikistan immediately.
“[Tajik authorities] give them six hours to leave the country. Around 100 citizens are leaving Jirgatol,” Kalbekov said on May 5. “My friend came from Jirgatol.”
Kalbekov didn’t want to give his friend’s name over concern of possible retaliation against his relatives in Tajikistan. He said the friend’s wife has decided to stay in Lakhsh for the time being.
Another Chui resident, Rakhimbek Kasymov, said he worries about the “hardship” awaiting those deported from Tajikistan.
“When they come to Kyrgyzstan they have nowhere to live,” Kasymov said on May 5. “Some stay in relatives’ houses and have many difficulties.”
The Lakhsh local government says that 19 Tajik citizens -- most of them ethnic Kyrgyz students -- were deported by Kyrgyz officials to Tajikistan late on May 3. Twenty-three more reportedly were also returned to their home country through the same border crossing between Batken and Lakhsh on May 6.
After being tested for the coronavirus, they are currently staying in quarantine in Lakhsh.
Contacted by RFE/RL, several of them said Kyrgyz officials told them they should return to Tajikistan because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Among them are at least five people who have both Kyrgyz and Tajik passports.
It’s not known how many ethnic Kyrgyz Tajiks have obtained a Kyrgyz passport while keeping their Tajik citizenship, though some sources estimate some 10,000 Kyrgyz just from Lakhsh and Murghob have done so. It’s unclear if they have told Kyrgyz authorities that they have not renounced their Tajik nationality or vice versa.
An official at the Internal Affairs Department in Lakhsh told RFE/RL that some of those “dual citizens” who chose to keep Tajik citizenship are farmers.
“They have up to 10 hectares of farmland leased from the state and they don’t want to lose that,” the official said. “If they chose Kyrgyz citizenship they would have to obtain a residency permit and face completely different rules for renting the land and [paying] taxes.”
The official, who is directly involved in the “inspection of documents,” spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Many other ethnic Kyrgyz Tajik citizens use their "second" Kyrgyz passports to get jobs in Kyrgyzstan, with the large southern city of Osh being a popular destination.
Some ethnic Kyrgyz hope that Bishkek and Dushanbe reach an agreement on dual-citizenship or a special arrangement for citizens to work and subsequently claim pensions and other social benefits in the neighboring state.
But with the ongoing tensions and deadly violence that has occurred, it’s unlikely the neighbors would consider such a step in the near future.