May in Central Asia: fighting on the unsettled Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border3 min read
On 29 April, gunfire broke out on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan near the Kyrgyz village of Kok-Tash, located just east of the Tajik border. Many have given conflicting accounts, but fighting is believed to have started after Tajik workers were seen setting up security cameras near a water intake station close to the village.
Kyrgyz villagers confronted the workers and eventually rocks started to be thrown. Rocks turned into bullets and mortar rounds as Kyrgyz forces and Tajik border guards got involved and after several hours the violence had spread to other towns as well. According to recent numbers, more than 40 died during the exchange. By 1 May most of the fighting had ceased, but tensions remained high between the two countries as border disputes are still unresolved.
This is not the first time that violent clashes have occurred on the border, as it has been disputed between the two countries since the fall of the Soviet Union. Even today, there is no definitive border, as only about half of the 970 kilometers have been demarcated. This has led to ongoing disputes over territory and natural resources. The village of Kok-Tash alone has seen many bouts of violence, including a similar exchange of fire over water distribution in 2014.
Water distribution has been a particularly sensitive topic in this region as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan use shared infrastructure. This makes any interference with shared water supply an immediate cause for concern for both sides. The water intake station where the violence began is vital to this process as it releases water into canals going to both countries.
The area around Kok-Tash is prone to these disputes as it contains a Tajik enclave, Vorukh, which is surrounded by Kyrgyz territory. Many in the enclave grow nervous anytime there is any road work in the area as there is always a possibility the future detours could cut them off from the rest of Tajikistan. There were already concerns about violence resuming in the region in March when construction was slated to begin again.
Despite the regularity of such events, this most recent exchange stands out as one of the most violent since 1991. This is because fighting spread to several villages, which is not typical as most events remain isolated to one area. The fighting also lasted over 24 hours, whereas previous exchanges, like the one in 2014, only lasted about an hour. Thousands had to be evacuated from the area as the violence dragged on and attacks began to escalate as homes and businesses began to be looted and burned down.
Much like after the previous clashes, the two governments have taken a different approach in handling these events. Sadyr Japarov, the recently elected leader of Kyrgyzstan, has actively made calls for peace, stating: “We can resolve all our problems only if we respect and consider neighborly interests and harmony in our ancient land”. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, on the other hand, has said very little about the conflict to date. Despite Japarov’s appeals, officials in both countries continue to blame the other for the escalation of violence. Fortunately, officials from both countries have signed a formal agreement to create an initiative focused on alleviating tensions on the border and preventing future armed conflict. President Japarov has also accepted an invitation to Dushanbe to meet with President Rahmon to discuss the events later this month.
Despite the willingness to cooperate among officials, it remains to be seen how residents in this area will be able to recover from the violence. Millions of dollars worth of damage have yet to be rectified, and many have been left homeless. Both countries are struggling amid financial hardships brought on by COVID-19 and it seems unlikely they would have the resources available to replace everything lost. This could potentially lead to more conflict, in addition to the unresolved issues over the border. At the moment, further violence seems likely, but hopefully, the new initiative will bring forward some hope of eventual peace.
Featured image: Borders / Radek Homola