The recent escalation did not resemble a local dispute that got out of hand. Dark clouds have been gathering over the region for a long time, and the decision to embark on military action was taken at the highest level.
Over the course of just a couple of days, a run-of-the-mill conflict between the inhabitants of border villages in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan spiraled into a battle between the two countries’ armies, the taking of hostages, and the seizing of checkpoints. Both sides moved their armed forces to the border and deployed tanks, helicopters, and mortars, and there were dozens of fatalities.
After several false starts, Bishkek and Dushanbe eventually agreed a ceasefire, and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon are set to meet at the end of May to discuss the issue further. They are unlikely to be able to overcome all their differences. It’s neither the economic nor the political moment for compromise. Japarov will not dampen his nationalist rhetoric, while Rahmon is planning to hand power to his son: not a good time for concessions.
The fighting on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border at the end of April was unprecedented in scale, but not entirely unexpected: since the beginning of 2020, there have been seven military incidents. In previous years, such as 2014, there were as many as thirty.
At present, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have about seventy unresolved border disputes. Of their 971-kilometer shared border, only 519 kilometers are properly delineated. Conflicts usually arise at flashpoints around the Kyrgyz villages of Ak-Sai, Kök-Tash, and Samarkandyk; the Tajik villages of Chorku and Surkh; and the Tajik exclave of Vorukh that is linked to “mainland” Tajikistan by a single road. Bishkek and Dushanbe tend to judge what belongs to them by using whatever Soviet-era map allocates them more territory.
Since most clashes between the inhabitants of border villages are limited to stone-throwing, the recent escalation does not resemble a local dispute that got out of hand. In fact, the storm clouds of war have been gathering over the region for a long time, and the decision to embark on military action was taken at the highest level.
The populist nationalist rhetoric that helped Japarov come to power is one of the reasons for the recent standoff. In interactions with Moscow and Beijing, Bishkek is cordial, but that cannot be said of its relations with other Central Asian countries. On March 11, Japarov made his first presidential visit to Uzbekistan, another country with which Kyrgyzstan has a territorial dispute. The visit was a success and the two presidents discussed the delineation of their border. Ten days later, a bilateral meeting took place in Tashkent to discuss the issue. The head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev, who led the Kyrgyz delegation to the meeting, later said the border problem with Uzbekistan was “100 percent” solved. Instead of approval, however, his announcement was met with fury, particularly among Kyrgyz border region residents, who took to the streets in protest. He was obliged to publicly withdraw his statement.
Shortly after that failure, Tashiev met his Tajik counterpart to discuss the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. After that meeting, Tashiev made another big announcement. He gave Tajikistan a choice: either commit to renouncing claims to territory around Vorukh, or exchange Vorukh for border land of the same geographical size somewhere else. The aggressiveness of the new Kyrgyz government was a gift for the aging and increasingly unpopular Rahmon. Within a few days, Rahmon had made a visit to Vorukh, where he pledged that “Vorukh will remain part of Tajikistan.”
Swapping Vorukh would not only be politically unpopular; it makes no economic sense for Tajikistan either. It’s unlikely the Kyrgyz government actually believed Tajikistan would agree. But it’s also unlikely that Bishkek expected Dushanbe to be ready for the full-scale military confrontation that followed the beginning of clashes on April 28 near the Kyrgyz village of Kök-Tash and the Golovnoi water intake facility.
At the same time as advancing near Kök-Tash, the Tajik army fired on villages in Leilek District about 100 kilometers away, suggesting the flare-up was far from spontaneous. Nor is there any way Dushanbe could have mobilized such a quantity of military equipment so quickly. There is evidence the Tajik army was building trenches in advance and had moved a sizeable force to the border, including T-72 tanks, Mi-24 helicopters, BTR-70 armored personnel carriers, and RPG-7 grenade launchers.
According to Kyrgyz media, Tajik units attacked border posts and took hostages while Tajik locals used hunting weapons to shoot at Kyrgyz vehicles traveling on the Osh-Isfana road. Kyrgyz special forces managed to make some advances and took one Tajik border post, but it was far from a Kyrgyz military victory. The fighting took place over two days and mostly around Kyrgyz villages. In total, more than fifty people—mostly civilians—were killed on both sides, with over 300 wounded. The Kyrgyz authorities evacuated more than 51,000 people from the conflict zone.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan quickly agreed to negotiations, but reining in soldiers and civilians on both sides was not as simple. Locals burned the homes and villages of the opposing sides, and were happy to upload evidence to social media. A ceasefire was eventually agreed on May 1. Within two days, troops were withdrawn from the border, and both sides announced they had regained all their former territory. Japarov is now scheduled to meet Rahmon at the end of May to discuss the issue.
Notably, no third country assumed the role of lead mediator. Like the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow said it was closely studying the situation. While Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev held phone calls with the presidents of the warring sides, Kazakhstan and Iran offered limited help, and China—the biggest economic partner of both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—remained silent. The fact that none of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s international partners were eager to take up the role of mediator is a worrying sign. The chances of the two sides being able to work something out themselves are slim.
The biggest winner from this escalation has been Rahmon. This little war demonstrated his regime is still capable of mobilizing the country in the face of danger, and a popularity boost will help him in the upcoming transfer of power to his son.
In contrast, Japarov’s already damaged reputation—he seems incapable of fulfilling his pre-election promises—suffered further as a result of the fighting. His image as a valiant nationalist is making his foreign policy more and more erratic. For the moment, China and Russia are too powerful for him to risk a confrontation, but his Central Asian neighbors are squarely in the firing line. The border fighting has shown that populist statements can have unpredictable consequences, particularly in a region where politicians do not shy away from nationalism. And Japarov cannot rely on help from outside: nobody is prepared to take a risk for him when he looks unlikely to last much longer as president.