The border problem between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in terms of regional security in Central Asia. 

Esen Usubaliev. 

The problem of border settlement in Central Asia has long been a major obstacle to the establishment of a strong and lasting atmosphere of cooperation and interaction in the region. While all the countries have had similar problems since independence, generally by 2018-2019 the states of the region have been able to settle the main border issues or agree on ways to resolve them, with the exceptions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 

A particular revival in solving not only border issues, but also other problems in the region in areas such as the economy, trade, water and agriculture, and political dialogue, occurred after the death of Karimov and the change of leadership in Uzbekistan in 2016, as the country became open to regional cooperation for the first time in expensive years. A particular breakthrough in improving the general atmosphere was the establishment of regular Consultative Meetings of Central Asian States, which from 2018 to 2021 made significant progress not only in terms of mutual understanding, but also defined a common vision for the region — striving for a single, integrated trade and economic space, shaping forms of political consultation and cooperation and interaction on stability and security across the region. 

Moreover, by 2018-2019, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, had almost completely resolved all their border, trade, economic and transport problems, markedly improving bilateral relations with Uzbekistan, the country that under President Karimov (1991-2016) implemented the toughest transport, economic and energy blockade of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while creating serious security threats in the border area (mining of disputed areas). 

Against the backdrop of a general desire for cooperation and engagement in the region, Kyrgyz-Tajik relations began to deteriorate rapidly, especially from 2017-2018, when conflicts on the border began to increasingly take the form of systematic use of firearms by both sides and the number of victims of these conflicts on both sides of the border began to rise. Against this background, the negotiation process has also become markedly intermittent and, despite the efforts of both sides, has only led to more misunderstandings and even more casualties in another armed conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2021 — the bloodiest in the history of the relationship between the two countries. 

A paradoxical situation is emerging: the two small countries in the region, which for a long time suffered from unfair treatment in the region — the realization of interests of neighbouring countries from a position of power, after the atmosphere in Central Asia began to improve — cannot find grounds for mutual understanding and resolution of existing problems. 

Based on these positions, there are in our view several dimensions of this situation — bilateral, regional and extra-regional. 

On the bilateral level, it is necessary to sidestep the analysis of Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s approaches to border issues and enumerate all factors and conflicts at the border, since it is obvious that each side has its historical and contemporary reasons to resolve the border issue in its favour. However, it is rarely considered why these countries find it difficult to compromise and why, given the positive example of addressing similar issues in Central Asia, it is the Kyrgyz-Tajik dialogue on the border that is the most inconclusive. 

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have many things in common, most notably that they are two small states in the region at roughly the same level of economic, resource and military-technical development. In a region where the dictate of force has traditionally been used as an important principle in international relations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan perceive each other as equal in capacity and both assume that this is the only way in which the assertion of their interests, for the first time in the history of independent development, could be decided in their favour by demonstration, threat and finally by the use of military force. 

In this respect, the increase in military tensions and use of military force as an argument to resolve border issues during the conflict in April 2021 is in fact the first experience of warfare between two independent states (the military experience of Tajikistan during the civil war is not taken into account).

Certainly, the results of this ‘experience’ have been used in both foreign and domestic politics as a tool of state propaganda for the two states — and Bishkek and Dushanbe have used this as an important mechanism to strengthen their own political power. 

Kyrgyzstan has significantly rethought the role of the armed forces in addressing security threats to the state and used the results of the conflict as a pretext to modernise its armed forces, including with the assistance of foreign countries. 

Nevertheless, it should be understood that the perception that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are on a par with each other creates a basis for an arms race, as both states, with their militarily equal armies, may seek to achieve military superiority at any given opportunity. 

Tajikistan is 81st in terms of military capacity, while Kyrgyzstan is 78th, whereas Tajikistan spends about $75 million on the army and Kyrgyzstan no more than $32 million. 

Naturally, the arms race between the two countries creates serious tensions which affect the development of internal cooperation processes in the region. Moreover, the need for armaments opens up opportunities for other countries to become more involved in regional affairs and to expand their presence. 

For instance, as early as December 2021, Turkish strike drones, the Bayraktar, will enter service with the Turkish Border Guard. At the same time, there are reports from experts that Tajikistan is interested in buying similar technology for its army. 

However, it has also become evident to Kyrgyzstan that Russia’s gratuitous supply of military equipment to Tajikistan in 2021, despite the fact that it was related to the situation in Afghanistan, may also be used in future conflicts on the border. 

Another escalation on the border in January 2022 resulted in the determination of the two sides to solve all problems without the involvement of third forces, as the leaders agreed during an informal meeting at the Beijing Olympics. The issue of mutual trust between the leaders of the two countries is also a factor that influences the prospects for achieving a long-term format for resolving the border issue. As noted by a number of experts, the regular exchange of critical remarks in the press between the top officials of the two countries on border issues creates an additional factor of mistrust in the relations. 

Despite the fact that the leaders of the two countries have agreed to resolve all issues without involving third parties, it seems that Russia’s mediatory role could contribute to a more effective resolution of border demarcation and delimitation issues, especially given the different cartographic data referred to by the Kyrgyz and Tajik sides. At least such a possibility still should not be ruled out in the foreseeable future, since both countries are members of the CSTO and close allies of Russia in the region. 

From a regional perspective, it is not in the interest of all states in the region to have an open or sporadic conflict in Central Asia, which affects the overall level of cooperation. However, the fact that the two states on whose territory the main water resources of the entire region are formed are in a constant state of confrontation suggests that the other two countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which are the main recipients of water resources, could benefit. 

In the early 2000s, projects were already being discussed to establish a water consortium between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which could jointly form a water and electricity market in the region as new hydroelectric power stations — Rogun in Tajikistan and Kamar-Ata (1, 2) in Kyrgyzstan — are constructed. At least for Uzbekistan of I. Karimov’s period it was extremely disadvantageous for both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to develop hydropower. In this respect, it is advantageous for the major countries of the region to negotiate water separately with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, ruling out the possibility of them coordinating on water and energy issues in Central Asia. 

Problems outside the region may be more of a ‘potential’ issue — the intermittent conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan exposes a number of ‘promising areas’ for external influence — inter-ethnic conflicts, the growth of religious extremism and terrorism in the region, especially in view of the proximity of Afghanistan. 

The desire of Western states to increase pressure on Russia and China in regions where their vital interests are concentrated — in this case Central Asia — through the example of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border problem, could create serious vulnerability. 

Now, against the backdrop of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, it becomes crucial to ensure security in key areas of Russian influence and the resilience of its main allies. Central Asia should remain a space of geopolitical stability and strategic predictability for Russia. 

In this regard, the sooner Bishkek and Dushanbe can come to a mutually satisfactory formula for a long-term settlement on border issues, the sooner it will be possible to talk about the actual formation in Central Asia of a space of economic cooperation and security that suits both the countries of the region and the main external influences, Russia and China. 

Esen Usubaliyev, Ph. D., Director, Prudent Solutions think tank.

7 March 2022. 

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