A six hundred plus miles border and water disputes are two main reasons for the long-standing clash between neighbors Kyrgyz and Tajiks. The seemingly never-ending conflict escalated when the latter allegedly broke the ceasefire agreement on September 14, 2022, killing and injuring dozens of people.

The two former Soviet Union nations have had a long-running border skirmish since the collapse of the transcontinental communist state in the early 90s, which renewed in a series of firefighting that began in late April last year near the village of Kök-Tash, Batken District. It resulted in at least 55 deaths and dozens of wounded, while more than 33,000 residents surrounding the conflicted area were evacuated. Despite joint security controls being signed by both countries a week following the clash, small fire exchanging incidents continued until January this year, when the sporadic border dispute escalated again.

Kyrgyzstan–Tajikistan border
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Two Kyrgyz border guards and three civilians were injured due to a shootout on September 14 in the Kak-Sai and Pasky-Aryk areas of the Batken Region. Tajik, on the other hand, lost two soldiers and 11 people wounded.

What Triggered the Latest Skirmish?

According to news reports, a Kyrgyz border unit demanded that the Tajik border detachment leave the area. The latter did not comply and instead opened fire, to which the Kyrgyz border guards responded.

“The border guards opened fire, and as a result, the Tajik side used a mortar. By 9:30 on September 14, the shooting intensified and did not stop,” the Border Service of the Ukrainian Security Service agency reported. The shelling had stopped by noon, though it remained tense, and regional leaders from both sides met in the afternoon to discuss the situation at the border.

On September 16, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, to discuss the border issue. After the bilateral meeting, however, both officials released “rather anodyne statements,” with Japarov claiming both had agreed to a ceasefire, while Rahmon did not mention it. That same day, fighting resumed on the border, with reports saying that Tajik forces were using mortars to bombard outposts and nearby settlements. In contrast, Kyrgyz special troops were accused of attacking residential buildings with newly acquired Turkish Bayraktar assault drones—essentially pointing fingers at each other for pulling the trigger.

One thing to note about these settlements near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border is that it’s among the most densely populated area in the world, thus making the recent “skirmish” the deadliest yet since the fighting began.

The ceasefire was finally reinstated on Sunday, September 18, with both sides reporting a combined death toll of nearly a hundred people and dozens more wounded. Kyrgyzstan has also said to evacuate roughly 137,000 of its citizens away from the hot zone.

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Pointing Fingers Sign A Peace Deal

The deadly clash finally winded down on Monday, with the Kyrgyz government declaring a national day of mourning for the victims. Japarov addressed its people to trust in its army and strategic partners.

“We continue our efforts to resolve the Kyrgyz-Tajik border issues in a purely peaceful way,” the Kyrgyz president said in a televised address on a national day of mourning. “Another point I would like to mention: I urge calm among the men and youths who are willing to go to Batken … We have courageous warriors and enough forces to repel those who violate our borders,” adding not to trust “provocateurs who slander our strategic partners, friendly nations and peoples who share our position.”

Meanwhile, Tajikistan’s foreign ministry reiterated its position in a statement that Kyrgyzstan had instigated last week’s fighting.

“…military units of the Border Troops of the State Committee for National Security of the Kyrgyz Republic, without any reason, began shelling the Kekh border post of the Border Troops of the State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan in the Vorukh Jamoat of Isfara Town, Tajikistan. During this unprovoked act of aggression, the Kyrgyz side used mortars, machine guns and other small arms […] carried out the transfer of additional forces and heavy equipment to the border areas. The Tajik side was forced to return fire,” it stated.

Nevertheless, the government agency stressed that negotiations were crucial for resolving the conflict. As a result, both Central Asian countries have agreed to pull out additional military forces and equipment from the border and signed a peace deal on Tuesday by their senior representatives.

Kamchybek Tashiev, President of Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Committee, expressed that the “signed protocol of mutual understanding … will bring peace” between the clashing nations.

“I am sure that peace is always better, peace will persist and we will always strive for this peace,” Tashiev added. Meanwhile, his Tajik counterpart Saimumin Satarovich remarked that “real peace will come to our borders,” and referred to the two countries as “brother nations.”

Putin Tries To Mediate, But Is “Too Occupied”

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have had a border dispute for over three decades due to the geographical situation, ethnic structure, transportation, and water resources. As a result, both countries have been stalemated as they continue searching for a solution that will meet their needs.

Having established friendly relations with both nations, the Kremlin told reporters that President Vladimir Putin has spoken to Japarov and Rakhmon via telephone and has urged them to deescalate the tension “exclusively by peaceful, political, and diplomatic means as soon as possible.” Although it did not take any sides, Russia offered assistance to further control the conflict. But sending Russian troops right now to enforce peacekeeping in the disputed border seems impossible as Russia is also handling its aggression in Ukraine. Because of the mobilization of Russian forces and sending most of its military equipment to conduct its “special military operations,” the Kremlin is incapable of helping its allies right now. Even the previously brokered ceasefire deal between another clashing border region of Armenia and Azerbaijan is in the cracks as the peacekeeping operation of Russia diminished.

A previous article published by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) suggested a few solutions on how to handle and move forward with the crisis without relying much on Moscow, including collaboration with the rest of the Central Asian countries.

“Central Asians know that they are stronger working together and that resolving their own issues is always better than inviting powers from outside the region to solve their problems,” the US Congress think tank stated.

In addition, community-to-community trust-building activities “can help manage resource conflicts,” which are frequently the spark for clashes, “while state-to-state trust-building measures can prevent clashes from escalating.”

“The role of how social media processes information and the possibility it may be manipulated in this and future conflicts is also worth some examination,” it added.

While the resolution may appear impossible in the absence of external mediators, long-term solutions would still require addressing conflicts over resources, borders, access, and mistrust within the region itself.