By Arslan Sabyrbekov (08/05/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On July 10, an exchange of fire on a disputed section of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border reportedly left at least seven border guards from both sides injured. One Tajik citizen died of gunshot wounds at the scene of the incident. The foreign Ministries of the neighboring countries, which generally enjoy good relations, exchanged official notes of protest accusing one another of breaching international law and asking for clarification of the circumstances.
The shootout took place on the outskirts of the Vorukh, an exclave of Tajik territory entirely enclosed within Kyrgyzstan’s southern region of Batken. The Vorukh enclave is a densely populated area with a population of 40,000 residents, mainly of Tajik ethnicity. Kyrgyz residents living around Vorukh have to drive through it to get to different parts of the Batken region.
To avoid this difficulty and the occasional frictions it causes, the Kyrgyz government last January decided to build a new road to bypass the enclave completely. Tajik authorities issued a statement demanding an immediate end to the construction works, saying that the road is being built on a contested territory and complaining that it would allow the Kyrgyz to blockade the Tajik enclave. At that time, the arguments over the road construction led to a one-hour shootout between the sides, leaving two Tajik and five Kyrgyz border guards heavily injured. After the shootout, Bishkek closed its border for almost two months and recalled its ambassador from Dushanbe for consultations.
The July 10 shootout at the border coincided with the upcoming talks between the heads of Border Services of the two countries. According to Kyrgyz official sources, the residents of the Vorukh enclave have purposefully taken unlawful actions to stop the negotiations over the construction of the aforementioned road. The Kyrgyz Border Service made an official statement claiming that around 30 Tajik citizens have tried to build a water pipeline from the territory of Kyrgyzstan (river Karavshin) to the Tajik village of Bedak, in Vorukh enclave. Kyrgyz border guards approached the scene, demanding a halt to the illegal actions after which local Tajiks threw stones at them. The situation escalated further and eventually led to a firefight between the sides.
In its official protest to Bishkek, Dushanbe gave a different description of the situation, claiming that their citizens were installing a water pipeline on the territory of the Vorukh cooperative at around 11.30 on July 10, when Kyrgyz border guards approached them and demanded to stop construction works in an aggressive and insulting manner. Tajik border guards, who were nearby, tried to stop the actions of their Kyrgyz counterparts, who opened fire with automatic firearms, injuring several and killing one civilian.
Indeed, the sides are throwing accusations at one another for starting the conflict, instead of demonstrating political will to resolve the pressing problem. The July 10 shooting is unlikely to be the last and the death of a local Vorukh enclave resident could further exacerbate nationalist feelings.
To prevent further escalation of the conflict between the relatively friendly countries, political analyst at Moskovskiye Novosti Arkady Dubnov suggested that mediation by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) could positively contribute to a peaceful development. In his words “Mr. Bordyuzha, Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, is not a representative of the Russian Federation, but heads an international organization, with both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as its members, and is in a position to talk to both sides and positively contribute to border conflict resolution.”
The proposal seems timely, since the issue of drawing a border cannot easily be resolved by two conflicting sides. Despite the creation of a Joint Border Drawing Commission, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have since 2006 not delimited a single kilometer of their contested border, which currently amounts to 460 kilometers. Negotiations are deadlocked for the simple reason that the Kyrgyz side refers to maps from the 1950s and the Tajik side to maps from the 1920s. Thus, continued negotiations along these lines are simply unproductive.
Additionally, with Kyrgyzstan joining the Russia-led Customs Union, drawing concrete state borders with its neighbors is one of the many priority tasks for Bishkek to address.
The author wrote this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the organization for which the author works.