What explains the dramatic escalation of violence along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border?
A Kyrgyz soldier walks past a burned house after fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Ak-Sai village about 950km (593 miles) southwest of Bishkek the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.
Credit: AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin
In mid-September, the long-running border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan exploded into a new phase. The escalation of violence – which left at least 100 dead and displaced thousands – marked a sharp deterioration of relations between the respective governments, fueled by an excess of accusatory rhetoric in the aftermath.
While the dispute has historical roots in the borderlands, where much of the international border between the two states has remained unsettled for 30 years, contemporary factors from a stalled negotiation process to increased militarization of the border area contributed to the burst of violence in September. To dive deeper into the conflict, and contemplate ways forward, The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz spoke with Parviz Mullojonov, a political scientist and historian, about the troubled Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
A significant portion of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border is undelineated and undemarcated. What have the major hurdles to settling the border been over the years?
Indeed, until the present, despite continuous efforts and regular outbursts of violence, only about 60 percent of the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is demarcated. One of the main factors that hamper the demarcation process is the profound disagreement between the countries regarding the ownership of land plots and water sources along the border – especially around the Tajik enclave of Vorukh. In general, the disagreements could be relatively divided into three main clusters.
First, the question of ownership of several hundred hectares of land plots – predominately pastures and fruit gardens – located mainly around the Tajik enclave Vorukh. Across the centuries both local communities – nomadic Kyrgyz and settled Tajik farmers – jointly and relatively peacefully used the disputed lands based on inter-communal agreements and arrangements. However, the sedentarization and mass resettlement of the nomadic Kyrgyz population during the Soviet period changed the demographic composition and promoted competition over land and water resources.
The effect was doubled by the so-called “demographic scissor” phenomenon, which is described when considerable population growth is accompanied by the reduction of cultivated areas. On one hand, the region experienced a demographic explosion, especially on the Tajik side of the border; on the other, the massive and large-scale irrigation system constructed during the first decades of the Soviet Union was already outdated and required a thorough renovation both in terms of equipment and water usage technology. The irrigation methods are still based on badly regulated and intensive watering. It causes a considerable, annually increasing, rise in the levels of underground water and, consequently, salinization of soil and further degradation of land plots.
In 1940, the average size of cultivated lands in the area constituted 0.6 hectares per capita; in 1989, it was only 0.17 hectares per capita. The phenomenon drastically enhanced competition for scarce water and land resources and, consequently, promoted social tension and conflict potential in the border areas.