After gaining their independence a quarter century ago, all of the countries of the post-Soviet space have had to delimit their borders with each other. Most have had conflicts, but all but a few of those have since been resolved. One of the most serious of the remaining border conflicts involves the state border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as the status of an ethnic-Tajik exclave (Borukh) within the borders of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. Disagreements about the location of the border led to an armed clash three years ago (see EDM, February 11, 2014; May 20, 2014). And now, some incautious language by the outgoing president of Kyrgyzstan threatens to reignite an issue local experts say is “a delayed action mine” that threatens not only the stability of these two countries but also of Central Asia as a whole (News.tj, November 24, 2017).
For the first decade after gaining their independence, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were so beset with domestic problems that they did not even try to negotiate with one another on the delimitation of borders, although Tajikistanis believe to this day that Bishkek used this period to reroute highways so as to cut off the Tajik exclave of Borukh and to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for ethnic Tajiks living along the populated portion of the border to move about. Seventeen years ago, the two countries began talks, and by early 2015, they had agreed on the delimitation and demarcation of 503 of the 971 kilometers of their borders.
Since that time, however, there has been almost no progress at all. Two reasons account for this. First, the portions of the border agreed to before 2015 were almost all unpopulated, while the 460 kilometers that are left pass through ethnically mixed villages and rural areas. The division of these communities is extremely controversial because lines would either have to be drawn between houses, or people would have to be moved. Second, the two sides have not been willing to make any progress on the question of what to do with the Borukh exclave. The economic situation there has become dire—there are few jobs, no free land, inadequate health and educational institutions,
and no reliable surface transportation to Tajikistan. Consequently, more than 13,000 of Borukh’s 33,000 registered residents are now guest workers residing in the Russian Federation (Fergananews.com, November 29).
Meanwhile, the reasons the borders are such a problem and why efforts to reach an agreement on them are proving so difficult are rooted in three things: the way in which the Soviet government divided up these territories in the 1920s, the frequency with which the Communist regime changed the borders between these two republics (just as it did in the case of other republics), and the nationalist agendas of the newly independent states.
Before 1917, the region was not divided along ethnic lines; but in 1924, Moscow created a Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) within the Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR—that is, a “union republic,” administratively, considered the highest federal entity within the Soviet Union). The Tajik ASSR was not elevated to union republic status until 1929. The situation with the Kyrgyz lands was more complicated. Before the Russian Revolution, the Kyrgyz were known as Kara-Kazakhs. And in 1924, the central authorities created another autonomy, this time within the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR—the precursor of the post-Soviet Russian Federation) and joined the Kyrgyz to it. A year later, in 1925—and this date matters now because of a recent statement made by the Kyrgyz Republic’s former president, Almazbek Atambayev (see below)—the Kremlin corrected this error and transformed the Kyrgyz ASSR into the Kazakh ASSR. What is now Kyrgyzstan became a union republic only in 1936.
These divisions were enshrined in Soviet documents, but the central authorities routinely shifted the borders between these republics for economic convenience, irrigation programs, or even as concessions to favored representatives of the national elites. For the local populations, this seldom mattered because republic borders did not matter that much in the single state that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But as a result, both Kyrgyz and Tajiks came to view borders as flexible and something that could be changed for one’s benefit. Since 1991, however, this attitude has become a serious problem.
For much of the 1990s, Tajikistan was embroiled in a civil war and could not address the border issue. But the government of Kyrgyzstan saw a chance: it built new highways to integrate ethnic-Kyrgyz-populated areas and isolate Tajik ones, and generally made it far easier for Kyrgyz near the border to integrate with Kyrgyzstan than for ethnic Tajiks to do the same with Tajikistan. Now, the Tajiks have decided they need to respond. And Atambayev’s latest statement about the borders is widely seen as a match that could set off “the delayed action mine” (News.tj, November 24).
What the Kyrgyzstani leader said seems anodyne enough on its surface. He called for the still non-delimited sections of the border between the two states to be drawn according to the same principles used to draw the portion of the borders they have already agreed to. If that principle were followed, the two would use the maps of 1924, before either was a republic, rather than maps of 1940 and later when they were. The earlier maps show a much larger Kyrgyzstan and the later ones a much smaller one. Not surprisingly, the Tajikistani authorities want to adopt exactly the
If it were not for the enclaves and for the new roads and irrigation systems, this might simply result in deadlock. But poverty among Tajiks in both Borukh and in the border areas is pushing Dushanbe to use force to demonstrate its commitment. Bishkek will respond. And consequently, a dispute about maps is likely to explode in the coming months into one costing real lives and threatening the stability of these two countries and neighboring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as well.