«While the situation is very favorable along the border with Uzbekistan and China, the Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan borders alert major challenges, » political analyst Muslimbek Buriev examines nuances and challenges along Tajikistan’s borders in an article just for CABAR.asia.
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The border issue goes hand in hand with the country’s political and socio-economic development ever since independence. The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the importance of border points that enables the flow of goods, services, and people.
The young sovereign state was not able to fully address the problem areas with neighboring countries due to inadequate experience in similar situations. It still is unprepared for these challenges.
The existing border issues of ever-increasing importance will be reinforced after the isolation.
Tajikistan borders four states: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Afghanistan. The problems existed or exist all along the border. In each of the cases, Tajikistan had been a passive player in contentious processes that couldn’t effectively address the issue but rather been in a wait for proposals from either the neighbors themselves or from the international community.
This article considers each case individually and aims to see whether Tajikistan has the potential to play a leading and, most importantly, flexible role in efforts to address the sensitive issue.
The history of relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is quite complicated: the visa regime, disputes over the Rogun hydropower plant construction, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU, or the Islamic Movement of Turkestan), the precarious Tajik-Afghan border and an uneasy relationship between Emomali Rakhmon and Uzbekistan’s first President Islam Karimov. These factors were believed to be challenges, whereas some of them continue to stay that way.
Tajikistan shares a contiguous border of 1332 km with Uzbekistan, with 18 border posts alongside. The two states also share an enclave of Sarvak located in Uzbekistan and falling with the territory of Tajikistan’s Asht district.
Before the change of power in Uzbekistan, relations with Tajikistan had been tense. The latter manifested in the visa regime between the two states that once belonged to one country and until 1929 one republic within the USSR. The mutual “reticence” has existed since 2001. The landmines that the Uzbek government laid along the border’s mountainous areas in the late 90s were a real headache in bilateral relations. The reason was Tashkent’s doubts on the precarious Tajik-Afghan border, which posed a risk to Uzbekistan in IMU’s infiltration.
Since Shavkat Mirzyoyev came into power, relations between the republics began to strikingly improve. The lifting of a visa regime had a positive effect on the development of tourism and trade, including cross-border trade. The mine clearance on the Uzbek-Tajik border had been settled. The two also agreed on the demarcation of the common border’s controversial 20%.
We don’t know how the situation would have evolved if not Tashkent’s change in policy on its neighbors, but we are certain that the Tajik side never got to take a proactive approach in resolving cross-border problems with Uzbekistan.
The situation with Kyrgyzstan is the most challenging now when compared to other neighboring states. Although relations between heads of state have been fairly stable, regardless of the power change in Kyrgyzstan, recurring conflicts in the Vorukh enclave remain unresolved to this day.
Clashes in the border areas of Isfara and Batken date to the Soviet times. However, conflicts occurred only at the population level, owing to the lack of strict border controls between Soviet territorial entities. Resolving the dispute during the Soviet era was elusive due to the legal collectivity of the republics, but with independence, it became clear how pressing the issue of border demarcation in this area is.
Both sides seek to tighten border controls that only exacerbate tension and conflicts. The two governments lack experience of using inclusive approaches in addressing the issue and favor tight security measures. Hence, few common areas are regulated; one group at a disadvantage over the other as a result.
Meanwhile, there has been a discernible trend for conflict to be taken to the extremes. Whereas at the beginning it was mainly the home-level conflicts, from 2014 border services had been involved in clashes. Later, the Tajik side made accusations against “some factions in Kyrgyzstan”, while the statement by the department head of Tajik Interior Ministry in the Sughd region almost led to a scandal.
There was another land conflict on May 8, 2020, in the village of Chek, Batken Oblast, that resulted in a direct clash between the military. This time, the conflict lacked specificity: one source claims the area is not demarcated and the Kyrgyz side de facto used it all that time, while others say 4-hectare territory belonging to Tajikistan were seized. Thus, the land swap attempts failed to reduce mutual tension among the locals. The situation is aggravated by the media, as well as by ongoing recriminations that come from the top-level, too.
The root cause of conflicts is, therefore, the ineffective management of the border area that dates back to Soviet times.
One of the promising solutions emanating from the expert community is transparent research, a scientific approach to explaining the causes of the conflict and related factors. There is a need to compare the situation on this border with what is happening, for example, with same Uzbekistan.
Tajikistan’s southern neighbor has always been perceived as a risk factor both domestically and internationally. The risk of extremist infiltration on Tajikistan’s territory and drug trafficking remain relevant to this day. The Afghanistan border is the most precarious and poorly regulated either from the technical point of view or considering the natural conditions as border passes through mountainous parts. Currently, there are seven border points along the 1344-km-long border, making the border a priori less secure than, for example, the Uzbekistan border. Dushanbe was concerned by the lack of resources to control the situation on the border. Tajikistan has started to take Afghanistan as a threat. The shift of government in Kabul allayed the relations between the two states. Despite the remaining concerns on precarious border, this time Kabul is seriously accepted as a party also interested in stabilization.
The Afghan Government of Afghanistan finds itself in the predicament now. Prime Minister Abdullo Abdullo, once again, had failed to acknowledge the de jure authority of President Ashraf Gani. The emerging dual power can be a major obstacle to countering the Taliban. This could pose an immediate security threat for Tajikistan, especially in view of the recent peace agreement signed between the US and the Taliban in Qatar. Washington pledged to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, while the Taliban promised to engage in a peaceful dialogue with the authorities in Kabul.
As a result of this agreement, there have been frequent reports of the Taliban’s resurgence in the areas bordering Tajikistan, the most recent on March 29, when the Taliban took control of the Yumgan region located near the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan.
Tajikistan is unable to provide full Afghanistan border security by itself. Recognizing this, international actors implement various programs aimed at strengthening the response capacity of the country’s border services. Tajikistan was lucky in this regard, as the extremist groups active on Afghanistan territory pose the threat to the entire world community.
An example could be the European Union’s BOMCA regional project, designed to improve the border management system and strengthen capacities of Border and Migration Agencies, including in Tajikistan. The OSCE is also implementing a project to enhance the southern border security, focusing on training and education of border guards and Emergency Committee officials. Other than training projects, military exercises are held often close to the Afghan border with the participation of Russian and, more recently, the Chinese military.
In the case of Afghanistan, Tajikistan finds itself in a dangerous situation, as the border is vast, and there is no way to ensure complete control. International counterparts provide full assistance, making Tajikistan dependent on their resources, technologies, and competencies on border security. The Government must collaborate with international organizations to strengthen border control in the long term. It also needs to ensure the sustainability of response at the border for moving beyond foreign partners’ dependency.
Tajikistan’s shortest border is 494-km long and shared with China. There is only one Kulma-Karasu checkpoint connecting Tajikistan’s Murgab district and the Kashgar district of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Many years of demarcation has led to the long-lasting stability on this border section.
In the early stages, China nurtured relations with Tajikistan for the very purpose of addressing cross-border disputes. The countries commenced negotiations at the end of the civil war in Tajikistan and signed the Treaty on Advanced Military Mutual Trust in the Border Regions in September 1996, which provided the basis to form the SCO. The first step in resolving cross-border disputes was taken three years later when Tajikistan agreed to hand off 200 sq. km of disputed territories, retaining control in the Karzak pass. Then in 2002, Tajikistan agreed to cede 1,000 sq. km to China from the Murgab district territory. Both treaties were ratified in 2011.
Information on the Chinese military base on Tajikistan’s territory, in the same Murgab district bordering both China and Afghanistan, is often surfacing on the Internet. According to other sources, the base is one of 11 border posts that are planned to be built on the Tajik-Afghan border with the financial contributions from the PRC.
Thus, China now has become an important security partner for Tajikistan. Unlike other partners engaged in capacity building of border services, China provides infrastructure. Tajikistan might accept the option, since the infrastructure on the Afghanistan border is insufficient, to begin with. Besides, China is a superpower with a developed military complex. Moreover, the geographical proximity of the two states can enhance the effectiveness of security cooperation.
Again, this raises the issue of Tajikistan’s dependency on international actors. The dependency is heavier in the case with China since Chinese investment is now playing a central role in the Tajik economy. China has long built an investment and infrastructure bridgehead for its trading interests. Beijing’s active role in security issues, including at the border, can be interpreted as an attempt to ensure both the security of its territory and its investments on Tajik territory. This could eventually lead to political dependency manifesting in regular coordination of foreign policy decisions with Beijing, including the border issue.
Border security, including at the Tajik-Afghan border, is currently a priority area. As with the Uzbekistan border management, Tajikistan acts again as a party welcoming initiative but not showing it.
The situation along the borders is different depending on the bordering state. It is possible, however, to identify general trends: while the situation is very favorable along the border with Uzbekistan and China, the Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan borders alert major challenges. In all cases, except for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan is forced to rely on the partner behavior: both on the neighbors themselves and international actors.
The case with Kyrgyzstan has its nuances: here, Tajikistan attempts to play an active part on a par with Kyrgyzstan, third-party partners are not involved in conflict resolution, yet the initiatives to this day fail to succeed. Addressing the cross-border disputes in Vorukh-Ak-Say demands greater collaboration with the local population in identifying the causes of the conflict and finding a solution that is satisfactory to residents on both sides.
The situation across all Tajikistan’s borders still lacks scientific and analytical coverage. The studies need to focus on cross-border relations between the populations of neighboring countries. Producing a clearer picture of points for mutual understanding, as well as problem areas can provide many more effective tools for dispute and conflict resolution.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.
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