Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan Near a Border Agreement
Author: Nicholas Castillo
Oct 18, 2023
In 2022, fighting over the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border killed roughly 100 people, reigniting fears about the long-running border dispute. Even considering recent inflammatory comments by security service members, on October 2, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan signed a protocol that took a significant step toward resolving the long-standing border dispute. Despite the recent uptick in tensions between the two countries, a series of regional interests all point to increased cooperation region-wide, possibly tipping the scales in favor of an agreement.
A growing shared interest in regional stability and coherence motivated both sides to come to an agreement on the border. The last few years have seen an increased focus by the states of Central Asia on promoting the “Middle Corridor,” a broadly defined trans-Caspian trade route used in order to connect Chinese and Eastern goods with the Western or European market. The region has grown in international importance not only as a transit point but as a source of goods – particularly rare earth minerals and oil and natural gas. This is less the case for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which lack major resource reserves themselves. But these countries nevertheless do play an important role in regional stability that could have been held back by their border dispute that offered few practical benefits. For instance, many of the transnational infrastructure projects linking China and other countries to the region pass through either Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, providing a strong reason for a stable relationship between the two.
Another meaningful component sits across from Tajikistan’s southern border: Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Even as many Central Asian countries have sought to cooperate with the so-called “Emirate of Afghanistan,” especially in economic terms, instability originating in Afghanistan remains a persistent concern. The diffusion of extremist violence, Afghan drug trafficking networks through Central Asia, water routes, and Afghanistan becoming a failed state due to infighting will likely all be risks to regional stability for years to come. This year, Tajikistan has already reported multiple instances of fighters crossing the border into Tajikistan, though the exact facts of these incidents are murky. Therefore, a militarily capable Tajikistan, not distracted by border disputes with Kyrgyzstan, would be a source of regional stability for all of Central Asia.
It is possible that both Dushanbe and Bishkek looked to the example of, or were pressured by, Uzbekistan to resolve the border issue. In recent years, Uzbekistan has served as a model of border delineation. The country, the largest by population in Central Asia, has delineated much of its border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan since 2017. Uzbekistan has also emerged as a regional leader, pushing forward infrastructure projects and opening its borders for travel and investment.
The border agreement signals yet another sign of declining Russian influence in the post-Soviet space and the increasing self-interest and self-awareness of the region. One of the major takeaways from recent events in the long-running conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has been near-complete inaction on the part of Moscow. In a region long considered Russia’s “backyard,” Tajik and Kyrgyz leadership have made significant progress on a central security issue without any involvement by Russia. This is all the more noticeable considering that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have closer relations with Russia than other Central Asian states, in part due to economic reliance and labor migration to Russia from these countries.
The surprise protocol was signed following the recent uptick in tensions between the two Central Asian neighbors. On September 15, Kyrgyz security chief Kamchybek Tashiyev made a series of provocative statements, claiming, “If our neighbor nation does not give up its territorial claims, then we will advance our own [claims]. We have both the strength and the ability to do this. We have the chance to reclaim lands handed over to Tajikistan dozens, or even hundreds, of years ago.” The Presidents of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan later met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, possibly to mediate the tensions.
It was Tashiyev, however, alongside his Tajik counterpart, who signed the “Protocol 44” agreement in Batken on October 2. Tashiyev claimed that the document “gives us the basis to resolve all border issues.” Saimumin Yatimov, head of Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security, stated, “We will diligently and constructively implement [the agreement] step by step, aiming to reach a comprehensive and fundamental agreement in the shortest possible time.”
While the lack of details surrounding the agreement has caused speculation, it is clear that both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, at the very least, wish to offer the impression that serious progress is being made on the border issue. Given the degree to which an agreement is in the interests of both countries, it is likely that both Dushanbe and Bishkek will make continued progress on border delineation.