Nadyrbek Avazbekov, a member of CABAR.asia School of Analysts reveals such aspects of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border disputes as the use of water, pastures, roads, as well as the role of cross-border crime.
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Delimitation and demarcation of the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is not only a question about the definition and designation of state borders between countries on the ground. This is a broader, multifaceted, and deeper issue related to the livelihoods of local residents, natural resources, infrastructure, local government, and local stakeholders. If countries begin to actively resolve the border issue, then the interests and concerns of all parties must be considered. Tensions over resources such as water, land and pastureland may continue even after clear boundaries have been drawn.
In general, Kyrgyzstan -Tajikistan problems with land and water resources have been going on since the 1920s, from the Soviet Union times. The first clashes between Kyrgyzstanis and Tajikistanis were recorded in 1936, 1938, 1969, 1975 and 1989 – in the localities Ak-Sai and Vorukh (1975, 1989), Uch-Dobo and Khoja Alo (1989) using stones, agricultural equipment, and firearms. After gaining sovereignty, of the total 971 km of borders, only 519 km were demarcated and delimited. The rest of the border remains contested, with about 70 uncoordinated conflict areas, especially in the regions of Batken (Kyrgyzstan) and Isfara, including the Vorukh enclave (Tajikistan). Over the past 10 years, more than 150 conflicts have occurred on the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with injured citizens and victims from both sides, and every year there are clashes in the border areas.
On the part of the states, several meetings and events were undertaken at the level of local government and heads of state to resolve the conflict. In February 2020, yet another negotiation was held between the government delegations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where they discussed the clarification and exchange of 144 km of long borders, but to this day, no official procedures for the exchange of areas have been carried out. Delimitation and demarcation of borders is a very sensitive and important issue for both sides, especially for local residents, who will have to accept the agreements and abide by the rules. The main reasons for the emergence of disagreements and disputes between the parties are related to documents, land, water resources and pastures.
With the acquisition of independence, countries cannot decide on which document it is necessary to draw state borders, since there are several documents that each side refers to in order to protect or refute local as well as state interests. Until now, the Tajik side, when delimiting and demarcating borders, adheres to maps and documents written in 1924-1926, 1989; in turn, the Kyrgyz side offers maps and documents from 1956-1958; 1990s. Map from 1924-1926 was written during the delimitation of Central Asia, when the first national borders began to emerge between the countries. However, due to the fact that the members of the commission on the division of territories were not sufficiently familiar with the local geographic and socio-economic characteristics after the division, some kolkhoz (communal farm) borders with disputed lands did not coincide with the administrative boundaries of the Kyrgyz SSR and the Tajik SSR. To solve this problem, the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR decided to adhere to the principle of “actual land utilization of communal farms.”
In 1955-1957, under the leadership of a special joint parity commission, the second work on delimitation and demarcation was carried out. The Tajik side does not accept the 1957 document, claiming that this map was carried out on a one-sided basis, since it was ratified only by the Council of Ministers and the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz SSR, and this was not done by Tajikistan. The existence of multiple maps exacerbates attempts to resolve the issue of delimitation and demarcation between countries. Although the independent political scientist from Tajikistan, Parviz Mullojanov, and politician Medetkan Sherimkulov from Kyrgyzstan, argue that the 1957 map is newer, more accurate, and can serve as the basis for a new joint map.
Access to land resources
The next problem is related to access to land resources and demography in the border areas, especially from the Tajik side. A striking example of a lack of land due to demography is the Chorkuh jamoat (Tajikistan) near the border of Kyrgyzstan, where the per capita share of land is only 2.4 acres, compared to 8 acres in Isfara. Local authorities in Tajikistan tried to solve the problem of land shortages by reducing the allocation of household plots for the jamoat, however, by 2011 these lands were gone. The internal shortage of land creates great interest and demand for them, accompanied by corruption on the part of local authorities and residents of Tajikistan, as well as on the part of Kyrgyzstan. Politicians, local authorities, and residents of Kyrgyzstan often voice their concerns on borders as young people in the country are leaving the border areas, where a slowly expansion from the side of Tajikistan is noticed. However, now such relationships have come to ought, since now the borders are under the supervision of border services. At the end of 2020, in order to strengthen the fight against smuggling and criminal groups, the State Border Service (SBS) became part of the State Committee for National Security (SCNS). The decision made divided expert opinions into two fronts. One side supports such a reform, citing the example of neighboring countries and improving the efficiency between structures. The other side is against joining, as this will require additional technical and financial support, and the change in structure may affect grant funding from the UN, OSCE and international migration organizations.
Kyrgyz-Tajik settlements close to disputed territories create social tension between the residents of the two countries. The main conflict territories of the region are the villages of Ak-Sai, Vorukh, Kok-Tash, Orto-Boz, Somonion, Lyangar, Kara-Bak, Maksat and Dostuk.
Another source of conflict and partly a tool for manipulating each other is intercountry highways, which pass through the neighboring border several times. These roads are often blocked to show their grievances and protests to each other. From the side of the Kyrgyz residents, this is the blocking of the Tajik Vorukh-Isfara highway, which crosses the Kyrgyz territories three times: through the villages of Kok-Terek, Tash-Tumshuk and Ak-Sai. The situation is the same on the Batken-Isfana highway, where the road crosses the Tajik border in several sections. During conflicts, the Vorukh-Isfara road is blocked by the Kyrgyz residents, in turn the Tajik residents are blocking the Batken-Isfana road on the bridge over the Ak-Suu river, at the exit from the village of Kok-Tash. In order not to cross this bridge, the Kyrgyz side decided to build an alternative road Kok-Tash-Ak-Sai-Rawat through the southern outskirts of the village of Kok-Tash, which is also a trouble spot of conflict due to the fact that the road passes through disputed territories.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan share about 40 water channels, which are often blocked by local residents on both sides, which leads to confrontations or blockages of other channels. According to local farmers, the main cause of the conflict is that the upstream Kyrgyz / Tajik village is blocking the canal and using more water than it should be, preventing water from reaching them. Among all, several canals and reservoirs can be distinguished, around which conflicts and clashes often arise. One of these is the Tortgul reservoir, from which the Ak-Tatyr (Machai) canal, the Big Fergana canal and the Ravat hydroelectric complex originate. The Tortgul reservoir was built in the 1970s with the aim of expanding cropland and improving water supply to both Kyrgyz and Tajik residents. With the acquisition of independence, the issue of water resources became very acute. The Tajik side claims that after the collapse of the USSR, the Kyrgyz side stopped following the agreement on the necessary allocation of water from the Tortgul reservoir. In the study “Dynamics of natural resource management in the border communities of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan” it was found that the very fact of limited resources is not the cause of the conflict between border residents, the problem lies in the inefficient allocation and use of resources.
For Kyrgyz citizens, the problem with pastures is not as acute as for citizens of Tajikistan. Before gaining independence, Tajiks often grazed their livestock on Kyrgyz pastures or gave them to for grazing to Kyrgyz chabans (shepherds), and in return paid their service. However, after the approval of the government decree of the Kyrgyz Republic banning the use of pastures by citizens of foreign states, this led to the creation of tension between the citizens of the border community and to the practice of illegal grazing. Illegal cattle grazing creates friction not only between the inhabitants of the two countries, but also leads to combat firefights between the border services of the two countries. One such shootout took place in the Moinok pasture, where a boy born in 2001 was injured.
Border militarization and cross-border crime
Strengthening and militarizing national borders are natural measures for every state, but in our situation, it creates a new cause for conflict. If earlier the main cause of the conflict was the struggle for natural resources, then recently the local authorities have become the source of the conflicts. Often, border guards and law enforcement agencies, which are called upon to maintain order and security on the ground, become the cause of armed skirmishes and clashes. Local residents complain about the use of the powers of the security forces for selfish ends, that the border guards, under the pretext of checking documents and passports, extort money from citizens, and sometimes even go as far as beating the citizens. The same cases of extortion occur on cross-border roads by the State Automobile Inspectorates (SAI).
With regard to cross-border crime, the region is not limited to just cattle theft, hooliganism, and theft of property, but the problem of drug trafficking is also acute. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are located very close to Afghanistan, one of the world leaders in the production of illegal drugs. According to Vitaly Orozaliev, chairman of the State Drug Control Service (SDCS), “Batken is a ‘leaky place’, from where a large amount of drugs and goods pass to Russia.” There are organized criminal groups (OCGs) involved in drug trafficking, which include Kyrgyz and Tajik citizens. OCGs deliberately organize riots near the border territories in order to take advantage of the bustle and quietly transport goods across the borders.
Methods of solution
The process of delimitation and demarcation of borders is a very long and painful process for both states, which requires mutual concessions, negotiations, collaboration at the level of states and local residents. In international practice, there are several ways to resolve issues of state borders: both at the bilateral level, and by involving a third “neutral” party.
Most experts and researchers on the Kyrgyz-Tajik borders, given the economic and political losses in the region, offer several solutions.
- Considering national and local interests, exchange possible neutral territories.
- Strengthen the capacity of interdepartmental institutions for resource management, coordination, and monitoring.
- Consider intercountry agreements on access, use of water and pasture resources.
- Improve the infrastructure of water canals, reservoirs, and access to social and economic benefits.
- Comply with all arrangements and agreements on joint observation of disputed borders between the border services of both countries.
The problem requires a comprehensive and systemic solution, considering the state and local context. The very process of clarifying the boundaries should be accompanied by the improvement of infrastructure and socio-economic benefits of local residents of both states.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.
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