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guest essays

Done but not over Journalist Peter Leonard says long-term demographics and economics favor Tajikistan in the border conflict with Kyrgyzstan

Source: Meduza
guest essays

Done but not over Journalist Peter Leonard says long-term demographics and economics favor Tajikistan in the border conflict with Kyrgyzstan

Source: Meduza

By Peter Leonard

Dozens of people died in the past week in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province, killed by tanks, warplanes, and rocket artillery. On Monday, however, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov told the country in a televised address that there is no need for volunteer forces at the border with Tajikistan. While Russia maintains ties to both former Soviet republics and has avoided openly backing one country, demographics and economics favor Tajikistan, argues journalist Peter Leonard in a guest essay for Meduza.

Even Google Maps doesn’t quite know what to make of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. At one roughly 30-kilometer (19-mile) section of the border between the Central Asian nations, Google performs the digital version of a shrug and simply inserts a dotted line. After the countries went toe-to-toe in a brief but nasty armed confrontation in April 2021, Internet users in Kyrgyzstan wrote to the tech company to complain that many Kyrgyz villages had been placed on the wrong side of the line. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Fast forward to this month, and still the uncertainty persists with its death-bearing potential. Both governments feel they know where their country’s borders begin and end, but there is no definitive document enshrining their claims. And so almost 100 people were killed last week in yet another bout of fighting.

When Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were both part of the Soviet Union, the vagueness could be ignored. Ethnic groups traded and socialized; sometimes they intermarried. It didn’t matter if a part of the Tajik SSR, like the enclave of Vorukh, was surrounded entirely by the land of the Kyrgyz SSR, because Soviet citizens could move from one republic to the other without any particular impediment.

This in its crudest formulation is what lies at the root of the recurrent battles that break out along the perimeter that separates Tajikistan’s Sughd province and Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province.

The confrontations that the area has seen over more than three decades are normally on the trivial side. A typical incident will involve angry villagers clashing over access to a boundary-crossing river used for irrigation or some other awkwardly shared space or facility. Because the border is blurred, there is no recourse to any authority other than fragile and essentially informal agreements. When things go truly sour, nearby border troops might get involved to defend their fellow citizens, perhaps by firing off their rifles. If matters get out of hand altogether, mortar rounds are exchanged.

But since that April 2021 mini-war, in which at least 50 people were killed, every minor spark carries the prospect of becoming something far bigger.

Both countries blame one another for initiating this latest conflict, so charting a clear narrative is challenging. What follows are the broad strokes, however.

The latest Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan clashes, in a nutshell

Border troops got into a gunfight near the line of contact on September 14. Two Tajik soldiers are said to have been killed. Early in the morning two days later, following a deceptive lull, all hell broke loose.

A hazy impression of events on September 16, the day that saw most violence, has emerged through a blend of official press releases, social media postings, and — late into the crisis — sparse on-the-ground reporting. Tajik troops and irregulars, who had an array of light and heavy weaponry at their disposal, filmed themselves crowing as they paraded around deserted and burning Kyrgyz villages. Kyrgyz forces unleashed their firepower, too, striking both Tajik troop positions and homes. Video footage later surfaced of a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone owned by the Kyrgyz armed forces blowing up a Tajik military vehicle. Tajikistan arguably has the better-equipped army, but it lacks that particular element of aerial superiority.

Almost 140,000 Kyrgyz people would go on to flee their homes out of fear that the fire that was mostly, but not entirely, raining upon areas right along the border might spread further south.

In a grotesque twist, the fighting subsided while the presidents of the two countries (who both happened to be attending a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in neighboring Uzbekistan) sat down for a bilateral chat. Whatever they said to another had little effect. By late afternoon, the clashes resumed.

The fighting is now over. The security services chiefs of both countries met late on September 19 and signed a protocol committing their respective armed forces to pulling back troops and military equipment.

That will work for now, but the border question is going nowhere. About 300 kilometers of border — out of almost 1,000 kilometers in total — are still subject to wrangling. Most of those sections may be fixed through painstaking bartering, but the areas affected by these latest hostilities look intractable and liable to see repeat occurrences of the unrest.

And while Kyrgyzstan has intimated it would be happy to see some form of international mediation, Tajikistan is not returning calls.

Frozen again but not for long

Tajik intransigence and belligerence may well stem from a feeling that time is on their side.

Demographics and economics are doing Kyrgyzstan no favors. Their side of the border has little to hold people down. Jobs are sparse, which drives large numbers of men and women to seek work in Russia, and much of the land is unyielding when compared to what the Tajiks have. There are large urban centers near Tajikistan’s side of the border — that helps, too.

Not that many non-local Kyrgyz people have ever been down to the arid western corner of Batken province. Every time a conflict tears through, it depresses the region ever further and compels many to consider whether the time has come to leave. Those who suspect Tajikistan of instigating the seemingly endless cycle of conflict might argue that this is the very point: to create facts on the ground and for future border negotiations to take shape around those realities.

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