17 January 2022

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ON THE BRINK OF WAR

Unresolved border problem between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could have implications

Author:

15.05.2021

Peace on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, periodically tested through more or less visible incidents, was severely disrupted at the end of April. Many experts assessed the incident as a short but still full-scale war involving heavy military equipment.

 

Main problem between Bishkek and Dushanbe

The conflict began on April 29 with an incident near the Golovnoy water intake near the disputed border area upon the Ak-Suu river, when the Tajik border guards were installing video cameras to monitor the distribution of water. This caused strong rejection among the Kyrgyz residents.

Due to the growing water shortage, the problem of joint water use in the region has always been relevant. The Golovnoy water intake lays on the territories of the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan and the Sughd region of Tajikistan. Therefore, both Kyrgyz and Tajiks have access to the same source of water.

The Tajik side refers to the maps of 1924-1927 and 1989, which show the water body on the territory of Tajikistan. Kyrgyzs insist that it was built back in 1968 at the initiative of the Kyrgyz SSR and has since been the property of the republic. In addition, they add, it was originally intended for the implementation of irrigation works, irrigation of agricultural farms in border cities and regions of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

On the eve of the incident, on April 22, representatives of the water authorities of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan met in Fergana, Uzbekistan to discuss the use of the water reservoir. However, the parties did not reach an agreement.

It cannot be ruled out that it was the outcome of this meeting that, to one degree or another, triggered the subsequent and quite dramatic events.

Incidentally, at the end of March, the head of the Kyrgyz National Security Committee Kamchybek Tashiyev suggested that the border agreement with Tajikistan may include a provision on the transfer of the ownership of the Vorukh exclave to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for land adjacent to Tajikistan. In response, on April 7, President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon made an unexpected visit to the region. During the meeting with local residents, he said that the issue of territorial exchange had not been raised during the negotiations with Kyrgyzstan.

Mr. Rahmon also said that in the last 19 years, the Intergovernmental Commission on Delimitation and Demarcation of the State Border determined and agreed upon 519.9 km of border. The draft agreement on the state border was prepared for signing. According to Rahmon, the government of Tajikistan has completed the required procedures making the document ready for signing in May 2016. “However, due to reasons beyond our control, the agreement has not yet been signed,” said Mr. Rahmon. In other words, Dushanbe clear stated that the Tajik side has no claims to the existing configuration of the state border with Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, Bishkek may have objections, which ultimately slows down the ratification of the agreement.

However, this mutual exchange of statements between the two countries created an atmosphere of conflict. Subsequent events only confirmed fears about the worst of all possible scenarios.

 

Conflict and geopolitics

Remarkably, the conflict took place at a time when the attention of the international community was focused on the region. Incidentally, on the eve of events the US announced its plans to withdraw the military contingent from Afghanistan, which had been in this country for nearly two decades. Observers already predict a surge in tensions in the region after the departure of Americans, expecting revenge from the Taliban.

All the leading states of the planet have already reacted to the decision. As a possible reflection of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) was the meeting of the Council of Defense Ministers of the member states, which took place a few days before the start of the conflict on April 26. The conflict took place when the CSTO could possibly prepare for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, but in fact the organization failed to properly respond to the event in case of unforeseeable circumstances. After all, there are no mechanisms for resolving such disputes within the CSTO. Thus, the Secretary General of the organisation had no choice but to make another statement about the need to end the confrontation. The parties, however, did not react to the call, as expected. But during a personal meeting of Stanislav Zas with the secretaries of security councils of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Nasrullo Mahmudzoda and Ryskeldi Musaev, the situation was discussed in more detail.

After all, the border incident escalated into a real war, which took the lives of nearly 36 people and left 183 wounded. According to available information, on April 29, the Tajik military opened fire on the Kyrgyz border outposts Kapchigai, Min-Bulak, Dostuk, Kozhogar and Bulak-Bashi. As a result of mortar shelling, the building of the Dostuk post caught fire.

In retaliation, the Boru special task force of the Kyrgyz border service captured the Tajik border post Khoja Alo.

On the same day, the conflict spread to the Leilek district of the Batken district of Kyrgyzstan, where border guards of the two countries began an intense firefight in the border villages of Arka and Maksat. The conflict zone covered a vast territory, leading to the evacuation of more than 33,000 people.

There has not been such a large-scale tragedy in the region for a long time. Had the conflict covered the whole region, it could trigger irreparable geopolitical consequences for the whole world.

 

Prospects for resolving the situation

Fortunately, it was possible to avoid a full-blown catastrophe. De-escalation process intensified in early May. Delegations led by the chairmen of state committees of national security of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Saymumin Yatimov and Kamchybek Tashiyev exchanged views on the issue of delimitation and demarcation of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. The topographic working groups were instructed to start the description of state borders in the remaining sections as soon as possible. The parties reached an agreement on the immediate return of military equipment to the places of its permanent deployment. It was reported that the meeting of the presidents of the two countries was imminent.

Meanwhile, a quick solution to the problem is not available. It is reported that the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan, the territory where the conflict with Tajikistan took place, will soon be granted a special status. This will make it possible for local authorities "to coordinate the activities of territorial subdivisions of state bodies, as well as local government bodies, including law enforcement agencies and security forces." Most importantly, it is planned to increase the economic attractiveness of the region by stimulating entrepreneurial activity.

In fact, Batken oblast is the poorest region of Kyrgyzstan, with the most acute social problems. The population of the region is unevenly distributed within its boundaries and often suffers from weak social and industrial infrastructure. There is an outflow of the population, which, given its high density in the border areas, creates certain demographic risks.

In order to boost economic activity and attract investment to the region, the government of Kyrgyzstan promised to develop a system of concessional financing and a special procedure for the development of its budget, preferential investment and tax regimes, as well as a simplified mechanism for public procurement. In addition, the residents of the region are provided with benefits for access to state or municipal services.

Time will show whether these measures will help to level the situation and strengthen the position of Kyrgyzstan in such a sensitive region. But it is clear that it will not be possible to solve all the long-standing problems with only economic levers. A broad dialogue of all stakeholders is required, including representatives of the public, especially local residents. But this is a multilayered and long process, which hopefully started already.



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