Tensions Simmer in the Wake of Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Clashes
Jun 15, 2021
On May 25, 177 Tajiks were forced to return to Tajikistan after flying into Bishkek’s Manas International Airport, while another 100 Tajiks were stuck in transit in the wake of April’s Kyrgyz-Tajik border clashes. The Kyrgyz Border Service denied the travelers entry due to a temporary closure of the border to Tajik citizens. However, on May 24, the State Border Service of the State Committee for National Security of Kyrgyzstan said that the temporary entry and exit restrictions for individuals and goods from Tajikistan applied to five land checkpoints along the border, but did not mention air traffic. The Tajik Foreign Ministry said that it had not been informed that Kyrgyzstan would not be accepting commercial flights from Dushanbe to Bishkek.
The sudden travel restrictions were implemented as part of an ongoing effort to de-escalate ethnic violence after clashes erupted on April 28-29. Unlike previous clashes along the contested Kyrgyz-Tajik border in the Fergana Valley, the confrontation involved the use of military force and caused unprecedented property damage and violence. The conflict started on April 28 when Tajik workers installed a security camera at the Golovnoi water intake facility causing local Kyrgyz officials and border guards to flock to the site. As in previous incidents, members of adjacent communities engaged in stone throwing, which prompted police and border guards to come to the scene. Although gunfire at the border is not uncommon, casualties are rare.
This time, however, the two sides exchanged gunshots early in the morning of April 29 near the intake facility with both sides blaming each other for escalating the conflict. In response, the Kyrgyz government declared a state of emergency in the villages of Ak-Tatyr, Ak-Sai, and Samarkandek. Then Tajik armed forces attacked multiple sections of the border, including at three border outposts and two checkpoints, with Tajik troops temporarily entering Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz border outpost Dostuk was set ablaze after being hit with Tajik mortar fire. Additionally, multiple Kyrgyz villages were attacked with gunfire, mortars, and rockets. While the Tajik authorities claim that the helicopters were only used in the evacuation of citizens cut off from the mainland, photo evidence shows rockets that could have only come from attack helicopters. Kyrgyz forces staged a counterattack temporarily entering Tajikistan and seizing the Khoja Allo border outpost. Fighting ended on April 30, with Kyrgyz officials reporting 36 Kyrgyz citizens killed along with 189 injured and 58,000 evacuated. Tajik authorities reported 19 Tajik citizens killed (including 10 military personnel), and 87 Tajik citizens injured.
On May 1, Kamchybek Tashiev and Saymumin Yatimov, Heads of the Kyrgyz and Tajik State Committees for National Security respectively, met in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, near the border with Tajikistan and signed a ceasefire agreement in which they agreed to withdraw troops. A day later, Tashiev announced that Kyrgyzstan would sign an agreement on demarcating another 70 miles with Tajikistan by May 9 and that Kyrgyzstan would not ask for any compensation from Tajikistan for damage done during the fighting.
Border demarcation is a persistent problem in Central Asia, especially between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which share a 602-mile border, 280 miles of which is not yet demarcated. A possible impetus for the recent outbreak was an announcement in late March by Tashiev, in which he claimed the Vorukh exclave would be included in a land swap with Tajikistan. However, on an April 9 visit to the exclave, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon made it clear that the area would not be a part of a land swap. Rahmon said, “There have not been any talks about the possible exchange of Vorukh for another territory… and there is no possibility for it.” Since the Golovnoi water intake facility is necessary for nearby Tajik and Kyrgyz farmland, the lack of agreement on border demarcation has been a perennial source of strife and long-term disagreements that can erupt at any time into violence.
Kyrgyz and Tajik reactions to the clash differed. Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov advocated for a calm reaction and a peaceful solution on state television and in a post on his official Facebook account. In Tajikistan, however, Rahmon and other Tajik officials have made few references to the recent border clashes. The two leaders spoke on May 1, confirming the withdrawal of all military equipment, and agreed to an audit of all materiel deployed along the border by a joint commission. While Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Russian President Vladimir Putin have each offered to serve as a mediator, the Kyrgyz and Tajik leadership appear to prefer solving the issue directly. Although joint Kyrgyz-Tajik topographic groups have met in May to forward border demarcation, Japarov and Rahmon have yet to hold in-person talks. While the ceasefire is a success in deescalating the current crisis, the possibility of future clashes remains, especially as travel restrictions have caused new tensions.
Photo credit: Presidency of Kyrgyzstan.