Between September 14th and 17th, as member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) were preparing for its annual summit in Uzbekistan, what began as small-scale skirmishes along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border developed into a full-scale conflict with tanks, rocket artillery, and assault drones deployed. Amid conflicting information, the number of people killed is said to have exceeded one hundred, with thousands of civilians evacuated. The clash between the two countries is the deadliest in recent history.
State-sponsored violence between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is not a new phenomenon. The last decade has seen numerous clashes between their respective border guards, such as the three-day conflict in April 2021 which resulted in the deaths of fifty-five people. Border issues between the two countries are often presented as a legacy of Soviet-drawn boundaries and a Stalinist plot to sow ethnic discontent in the region, but in reality, the complex entanglement of the present-day borders is a product of the historic multilateral effort between the Soviet regime and local nationalist movements to create nation states in Central Asia where none had existed before. To reduce the root causes of the conflict to Soviet borders and “inter-ethnic” hatred is to miss the bigger picture. The conflict today is a modern one, exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and revolving around the scarcity of resources like food and water, as well as territorial sovereignty in an age where international peace is no longer taken for granted.
On a scale between zero and ten, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan scored 3.62 and 1.94 respectively on the Economist Intelligence Democracy Index for 2021, resulting in an “authoritarian regime” classification for both countries. The information presented by both sides, therefore, warrants further scrutiny. The recent conflict has shone a light on the differences in transparency between the two governments. Unlike Kyrgyzstan, the Tajik regime has been less than forthright with casualty statistics, instead resorting to blaming the Kyrgyz Republic for attacking them “for no apparent reason.” When weighed against the sea of, albeit unverified, widely circulated video footage on social media, their accusations begin to fall away. Tajik forces appear to have been targeting civilian infrastructure, such as residential areas and schools, backing up the Kyrgyz version of events. The situation is not as straightforward as it appears, however, with footage existing of dead Tajik civilians too. To muddy the waters further, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, Marat Imankulov, suggested that Tajik combat operations had involved terrorist groups. Videos of bearded men dressed in civilian apparel, in a regime where a de-facto ban on beards exists, points to the possibility of the insertion of foreign fighters. Additionally, the bodies of dead Kyrgyz guards, according to Imankulov, bore signs of torture and post-mortem mutilation. The idea that Tajikistan encouraged militants from nearby countries to participate in the recent clashes is one that must be seriously considered.
Russia’s recent struggles in Ukraine will have shifted the geo-political balance in Central Asia. Azerbaijan, for example, has decided to test the waters with Armenia, seeing as Russia is distracted with the current Ukrainian counter-offensive. Whilst both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have good relations with Russia, they can no longer rely upon Russia as the security patron in the region. China too, has kept a low profile to avoid any jeopardization of the upcoming Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, in which President Xi Jinping is expected to cement a historic third term. A power vacuum, therefore, is emerging in Central Asia, with none of the regional powers willing to exert themselves due to domestic issues.
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, agreed upon a ceasefire on the sidelines of the SCO summit, which has since held. The potential for further escalation, however, is not off the table. The delimitation process for the joint border has a long way to go, and with Russia and China distracted, further clashes in the near future are to be expected. The international community must consider all options, including the deployment of peacekeepers and the establishment of a demilitarized zone along the border, to prevent a full-scale war in the future.