Breaking down the Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Crisis
Aftermath of shelling in the Kyrgyz village of Internatsional, 21 September 2022 (photo via the Kyrgyzstan Border Service for the State National Security Committee)
On 25 September, representatives from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met to sign their second peace protocol in a week. Their goal was to end the hostilities that broke out along their border earlier in the month. The fighting that started on 14 September had already claimed over a hundred lives and forced over a hundred thousand people to flee their homes. It was the worst clash between the two countries in post-Cold War history, and the second in as many years.
What caused the crisis, and how were the parties able to end the fighting? Although all the details are not yet clear, enough puzzle pieces exist to craft a picture of what happened and why. Understanding this is critical for assessing the prospects for long-term peace between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while also advancing practical understanding of interstate crisis management.
Sources of conflict
To understand the Kyrgyz-Tajik border crisis, one must start by looking at the potential sources of conflict that exist between the two countries. That examination must begin with border delimitation. The map below illustrates just how complex the border situation is for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The challenges with border delimitation originate in the 1920s with the Soviet districting of regional areas. Authorities of the former USSR had little concern for property, local cultures, and traditional sites, among other things. While all the problems inherent to Soviet districting were manageable under the auspices of the USSR, they would eventually reemerge with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The nineties witnessed an effort among the Central Asian Republics to negotiate a new status quo. This process was slower going for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as the Tajiks became embroiled in a five-year-long civil war. As the dust from that conflict settled, the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks accelerated progress on normalizing diplomatic relations, and they have concluded forty-five international agreements and dozens more protocols and joint declarations between them as independent, sovereign states.
One of the challenges for the two countries was what to do with their borders. Among the problems inherited from the Soviet Union was the presence of exclaves inside Kyrgyzstan. The product of Soviet redistricting between the 1920s and 50s, these exclaves are pockets of Tajik communities that are landlocked within Kyrgyz territory. These exclaves introduce a series of problems that do not exist for many countries throughout the world, including the issue of how to negotiate border delimitation, as well as the necessity for transit agreements and special rules for access and protection.
Compounding the issue is unmarked sections of the 987 kilometer-long border. Much of the border is located in austere and rugged areas of the country, which presents practical challenges to demarcation. There are also political challenges that are associated with any unilateral initiative to mark the borders, which could be viewed as an attempt to pursue unfair changes to the status quo; therefore, border demarcation is necessarily a negotiated effort.
Absent clearly defined borders and with the presence of Tajik exclaves, the two countries run into associated problems, including land management, pasture management, and water management. Who owns the land, who gets to use it for livestock, and how much water residents get for irrigation and consumption are ever-present issues in Kyrgyz-Tajik border areas, and failure to manage them effectively has led to security incidents of varying scales. In fact, the Kyrgyz Border Service for the National Security Committee noted that there have been 144 such incidents since 2012.
The existence of those management issues and the history of incidents have led the two sides to increase their border security presence in areas at risk of conflict. This has brought more and better-equipped security personnel closer together, and this proximity of forces can accelerate and amplify any escalation cycle.
Another potential source of conflict is domestic politics. The relatively new President of Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Japarov ran on a pledge to complete border demarcation and championed nationalistic values in his campaign. Following his entry into office, his Chairman of the State Committee for National Security Kamchybek Tashiev has made statements related to the border that members of his own government have cited as potentially escalatory in the eyes of the Tajik government.
On the other side, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon has served as head of state for nearly the past thirty years. Recently, he has been grooming his son Rustam Emomali to serve as his successor. As has been demonstrated by other leaders seeking to achieve a patrilineal succession, a tried and true method of burnishing credentials for the successor is via crisis and conflict.
Rounding out the issue with domestic politics is the contrasting interests at the national and the local levels. Designs as created and agreed upon by the central government may not reflect the realities on the ground, which can lead to implementation problems or outright rejection of unilateral or bilateral provisions.
Finally, there is the issue of enmity. Although the two countries do not have lingering challenges associated with historical or cultural disputes, the distrust and disdain generated from regular border incidents and intermittent hostilities present challenges to negotiation and implementation of peacebuilding measures.
The September 2022 Crisis
With all the potential sources of conflict, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly which fueled the crisis. It is equally challenging to determine who initiated the crisis, as both the Tajik and Kyrgyz governments accused the other of shooting first, each side claiming that they have evidence of that initial act of violence.
Whoever initiated it, the crisis produced the worst hostilities between the two countries since gaining their independence. The main conflict areas are indicated on the graphic below.
What is evident from both sides’ reporting is that in the morning hours of 14 September, a skirmish broke out between Kyrgyz and Tajik border forces. This was the precipitating event to the crisis, and almost immediately, leaders of the two sides’ border units attempted to de-escalate the situation. Within hours of the first shots being fired, senior military officers from the two sides had spoken over the phone, met at the location of the initial skirmish, and called for an immediate ceasefire.
That did not happen, and in the late afternoon of 14 September, a second meeting took place–this time including law enforcement and district administrators from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The two sides agreed to position border security forces at designated areas while law enforcement authorities conducted joint patrols along the conflict zone. This agreement was successful in establishing conditions for a quiet 15 September as both sides implemented the terms of their agreement.
The tenuous peace ended in the early hours of 16 September, as both sides reported attacks. Once again, military representatives from the two sides spoke via telephone and attempted to set up another round of meetings to re-establish ceasefire conditions. The fighting continued until the late afternoon, when the two sides concluded a third ceasefire agreement.
The subsequent failure of that ceasefire prompted a series of meetings between higher level representatives between the two countries. The First Deputy Chairman-Director of the Border Service of the State Committee for National Security of the Kyrgyz Republic, Major General Ularbek Sharsheev, and the Commander of the Border Troops of the State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan, Colonel General Rajabali Rahmonali, met three times in less than 24 hours, including a meeting at one of the contested checkpoints. Although fighting persisted as their negotiations went on, their final meeting resulted in a lasting cessation of hostilities.
To solidify the ceasefire, the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments signed two protocols on managing the border situation. The first came on 20 September, providing for a complete cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of troops and military equipment to their places of permanent deployment, and joint inspection of border outposts and commandants' offices. It also called upon the two parties to continue negotiating specific implementation measures aimed at addressing the sources of conflict.
Kamchybek Tashiev (left) & Saimumin Yatimov (right) sign the first of two ceasefire protocols aimed at ameliorating the recent Kyrgyz-Tajik border crisis, 20 September 2022 (photo via Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
The follow-on negotiations continued until 25 September, at which point National Security Committee chiefs Kamchybek Tashiev & Saimumin Yatimov signed the second protocol to end the crisis. This included specific measures that covered the following:
removal of personnel from four guard posts each from high risk areas;
prohibition of commercial development of high risk areas but authorization to resume agricultural activities;
use of law enforcement to manage local disputes in conflict areas;
installation of cameras;
agreement to sign a separate protocol on highway access;
exchange of police officers in specified border villages;
withdrawal of troops and heavy equipment;
return of seized property and personnel; and,
appointment of conflict resolution officers in high risk areas.
Additionally, the two sides agreed to accelerate the process of border delimitation and demarcation.
So far, these protocols have enabled the two sides to keep the peace and furthered the effort to address potential sources of conflict, but the combination of this major clash and the high rate of low-level incidents in 2022 portend more tension unless the parties can break free from the current trajectory. Separating the forces and marking the borders ameliorates two sources of conflict, but issues over land, pasture, and water management will remain. This demands a more comprehensive approach to the situation.
Something that is not present in managing this conflict is employment of third party pacifiers, such as a foreign oversight commission or peacekeepers. Although initiating a new peacekeeping or oversight mission is never simple, the Kyrgyz and Tajik sides could elect to invite a negotiated list of countries to provide such services as they seek to ameliorate all their potential sources of conflict along the border. This is just one of the many options the parties could pursue in the peacebuilding process.
In the meantime, there are still many unknowns at this point. Was the precipitating event intentional or accidental? Did one or both governments decide to exploit the situation to achieve some other gains, whether practical or political? Was there internal or external political pressure to escalate or de-escalate? What steps can they take to prevent a renewal of hostilities?
Perhaps the answers to these questions will become evident in the coming weeks and months, but for the sake of peace between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two governments must seek to answer them now. With major border hostilities breaking out two years in a row, there is too much at stake not to.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is a seasoned international negotiator and the founder of the Parley Policy Initiative. He is the Special Adviser for Government Relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Michael is a former East-West Center Fellow, a military veteran, and the author of “Negotiate: A Primer for Practitioners.”