What had been a long-running local conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan regarding the delimitation of borders and the fate of exclaves has now expanded over the past two weeks to include major military units and the targeting of infrastructure deep within the territory of both countries. As a result, the chance for a full-scale war between the two Central Asian countries has become ever more likely (see EDM, September 23; Ia-centr.ru, October 30). At the same time, a potential agreement resolving border disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has now sparked protests by Kyrgyzstani citizens opposed to the accord, which threatens to further destabilize the already troubled country and possibly drive it into war (Cabar.asia, November 1). These developments would be serious enough on their own, but they have been compounded by the meddling of outside powers, including Russia, China and the United States (see EDM, February 15, June 22, October 25), as well as the growing threat emanating from Afghanistan for Tajikistan most directly but also for Kyrgyzstan and other parts of Central Asia (see EDM, September 20).
While the Kyrgyzstani-Tajikistani conflict is intertwined with the Kyrgyzstani-Uzbekistani clash, it is far more likely to lead to a major war than the latter, according to Aleksandr Knyazev, a specialist on Central Asia at St. Petersburg State University (Ia-centr.ru, October 30). Knyazev points out that the border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have not only increasingly involved regular army units from both sides but have also led to the arming of both populations, something that raises the possibility of a partisan war in either country—one that could resemble the anti-Soviet Basmachi movement in the 1920s and 1930s. But what is most worrisome, he says, is that both countries are using drones and other long-distance weaponry to attack regions far from their shared border, including as distant as the Pamirs in southern Tajikistan on its border with Afghanistan.
Moreover, as Knyazev and others note, both Bishkek and Dushanbe have whipped up public sentiment against the titular nationality of the other. This makes going to war easier, even though both governments clearly took this step for primarily domestic reasons: in the case of Kyrgyzstan, to allow the government to crack down harder on the opposition and, in Tajikistan’s case, to cover the transition in the country’s political leadership. The weakness of the Kyrgyzstani government and the mounting opposition it faces have been exacerbated, the Russian analyst continues, by Bishkek’s other “border problem” with Uzbekistan. Indeed, the two conflicts are coming together and making the outbreak of a major war between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan much more likely, even raising the possibility that it could spread beyond their borders.
For many, the protests in Kyrgyzstan against Uzbekistan seemed to come out of nowhere. After all, at the end of September 2022, the two countries reached an accord to swap territories for the express purpose of delimiting parts of the border between them. But as in all such cases, the devil is in the details. Uzbekistan agreed to give up 19,699 hectares of land to Kyrgyzstan, while Bishkek yielded control of the Kempir-Abad reservoir to Tashkent. Many in Kyrgyzstan were furious with this arrangement for fear that the land they would receive will be useless if they do not have access to the reservoir. From their perspective, Tashkent got something extremely valuable; and in exchange, Bishkek received something almost worthless (Cabar.asia, November 1).
Nevertheless, that might not have been enough to spark mass protests on its own, but the way in which the two governments have handled the agreement since has contributed to growing suspicions that Kyrgyzstan gave up even more. Tashkent has revealed nothing save that an agreement was signed and has not allowed any public discussion of its provisions. Bishkek, meanwhile, has also kept silent about the agreement’s specifics but has opened the way for public discussion by calling for its ratification and not blocking discussion of the accord in the media. As a result, some in the Kyrgyzstani population feel they have been betrayed by their own government and have taken to the streets in protest, most massively in mid-October 2022 but repeatedly ever since. The Kyrgyzstani government has arrested and fined many of those taking part in the demonstrations and now blames these actions on outside agitators. But few fail to see that Kyrgyzstani society has its own justified reasons to be suspicious.
Given these protests, Bishkek has an even better reason to play up the clash with Tajikistan in the hopes that stoking patriotic sentiments against Tajikistani actions will drown out public anger about the reservoir. Yet, in many ways, this would be a high-risk strategy. Due to the fragmented nature of Kyrgyzstani society, the authorities in Dushanbe may be tempted to go to war sooner rather than later, confident that they could inflict a resounding defeat on Kyrgyzstan and reclaim the territory they believe is rightfully theirs. Moreover, both countries may conclude that, since the world is now distracted by the fighting in Ukraine and Russia’s power and influence in Central Asia has weakened, each has an opening to “solve” what was initially a border dispute with more dramatic and violent action (Glavred.info, May 3, 2021).
Knyazev advocates for intervention from the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization lest war break out and be exploited by the West or others to further weaken Russia. He argues that if the situation deteriorates further, the possibility is growing that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could soon become a source of international tensions, similar to Kashmir or Karabakh. But the Russian analyst has little confidence that this will indeed happen given Moscow’s unwillingness and the rejection of such a possibility by both Bishkek and Dushanbe.
At present, the only thing that appears to be holding Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan back from the brink of war is the internal weaknesses of both states. But as many countries have shown, governments often choose to go to war precisely because they are weak at home. In truth, this may prove to be the case in the growing potential for the convergence of Kyrgyzstan’s two “border problems” as well.