In late April 2021, a conflict in the Batken region in southern Kyrgyzstan on the border with Tajikistan briefly took on the characteristics of a war between the two countries. Never before had a clash of this nature erupted between Central Asian states. It shows how sensitive the situation is on the disputed sections of border in the Fergana Valley and how little is being done by the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to solve the problems, making their resolution an ever more difficult task.
The clashes were sparked by the installation of a video surveillance camera by Tajikistan on 28 April at a water supply facility, where a complicated mechanism is in place to ensure shared use, on the border with Kyrgyzstan. The destruction of the camera by enraged Kyrgyz led to violent clashes and the appearance of border units from both sides, with shots fired. The next day, Tajik troops with helicopters and heavy artillery advanced into Kyrgyz territory at multiple points along the border, some as much as 70 km apart; they also attacked border posts and fired on Kyrgyz villages. The Kyrgyz troops reacted accordingly. Once the situation had calmed down, a ceasefire was signed on 1 May; since then, the situation has been tense but quiet.
The official death toll stands at 55, with more than 250 people reported injured. Around 60,000 people were forced to leave their homes temporarily, and more than 100 houses were looted and destroyed. The losses on the Kyrgyz side exceed Tajik losses by several orders of magnitude.
Border problems in the Fergana Valley
In many respects, these events are typical of border conflicts in the Fergana Valley, a fertile plain covering 22,000 square kilometres, surrounded by high mountains, and, since the Soviet era, divided between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, water is no respecter of borders and the distribution of this precious elixir is a conflict factor throughout the Fergana Valley. Growing water scarcity has exacerbated the situation in recent years. Other conflict factors are access to grazing and farmland and any form of use of (as yet) undefined sections of border by one side, whether to plant fruit trees or build a hayloft. The disputed water facility is located in one such contested area between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. As in many other cases, the border here was redrawn multiple times during the Soviet era and today, the two sides are at loggerheads over which borderline should serve as the basis for delimitation. This step, in which the borders are marked on paper, comes before demarcation, namely the practical action taken to provide visible evidence of the border on the ground.
Since 2002, more than 100 meetings of Kyrgyz-Tajik border commissions have taken place; to date, however, only around 500 km of the shared border, which extends for 970 km, have been delimited, leaving 70 particularly challenging sections still to be resolved. There are many reasons for this, but the lack of political will to address problems on the periphery is likely to be a major factor.
Conflicts along the tripartite borders in the Fergana Valley have occurred so often in recent years that a regular pattern can be discerned. They start with abuse at the local level, followed by brawls, stone-throwing and damage to property. Increasingly, border troops then get involved and shots are fired. In response, representatives come from the provincial administration or even, in exceptional cases, the capitals; they visit the border and reach an agreement with their counterpart on the opposite side, placate the locals by making promises and go back home without having offered any real solutions. In many cases, however, a gradual escalation can be observed; the situation at approximately a dozen sections of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border is said to be potentially explosive. One of them is the area where the “April war” broke out. Experts have repeatedly drawn attention to the worrying escalation in the spiral of violence observed here since 2014. However, the governments have failed to respond, with the result that the clashes reached a new level of escalation in April. For the first time, the conflict was no longer limited to the local level, and heavy weapons were deployed, with a corresponding number of victims and level of damage.
At the signing of the ceasefire on 1 May, it was stated that the tragedy that happened in the border area must never happen again. However, no real effort is apparently being made to avoid a recurrence. On 21 May, Kyrgyzstan closed its border unilaterally to Tajik citizens. In early June, both sides assembled their troops at another disputed section of border and were already evacuating local residents when a last-minute way out of the impasse was found. During a state visit to Dushanbe by the President of Kyrgyzstan on 28/29 June, both sides began talking again, at least, but no decisions were taken on the pressing matter of the borders.
Unfortunately, it is likely that like other problematical border issues far out of sight of the capitals, this one will once again be ignored by the governments until a further escalation occurs.
Loss of trust
Like most border conflicts in the Fergana Valley, the clashes at the end of April broke out at an undelimited section of border. This is not to say that the problems could be resolved by the conclusion of a bilateral border agreement. The years of foot-dragging on delimitation in problematical cases has made them more difficult to resolve. Rural overpopulation, lack of land and water scarcity – factors which worsen the border situation – have increased over the past two decades, as have the nationalist discourses initiated by the presidents, which heighten sensitivities to possible cessions of territory.
Inevitably, the constant conflicts have left their mark on the communities concerned: “This incident is the result of the bitterness that has built up within people over many years. By doing this, they were probably just venting their emotions,” one Tajik official commented in response to the looting that occurred on 29 April. But beyond that, relations between communities on both sides of the disputed stretches of border have long been characterised by mistrust. Even the camera that sparked the clashes in April was an expression of mistrust: it was meant to provide evidence that the Kyrgyz were engaged in illegal activities.
After years of being overlooked, the border communities have also lost faith in their own leadership. As they see it, they have been neglected by the capitals and their interests have not been considered. The tendency to deal with border issues behind closed doors fuels rumours and fears, making an already difficult situation worse.
Even if an initial agreement can be reached at the intergovernmental level, it will be impossible to implement without local buy-in, as the case of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan earlier this year has shown. From the capitals’ perspective, border agreements and territorial gains or losses are primarily a matter of national honour – but for the local communities, they are a matter of survival. Access to water and grazing is essential and goes beyond the question of the historically “correct” border. Alongside intergovernmental border agreements, workable solutions to these questions must be sought on the ground together with affected communities and trust must be rebuilt. However, equal participation by communities in decision-making processes at political level is not the norm in Central Asia; the prospects of a peaceful solution to the border conflicts at intergovernmental and national level therefore look bleak.
 This is the course of events as described in the local and international media. The two sides‘ narratives naturally differ. With its numerous and mostly unregulated media outlets, Kyrgyzstan controls the narrative; the events go largely unreported in Tajikistan.
Dr Beate Eschment is a researcher and Central Asia expert at ZOiS.