Vienna, January 7 – Both the situation along the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and political imperatives in their respective capitals mean that a serious military conflict between the two countries is “only a matter of time,” according to an analyst who serves as an advisor to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In an article posted online at the end of last week, Gul’nur Rakhmatullina, a senior scholar at the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies, says that tensions between the two countries and peoples are growing and threaten to break out into full-scale fighting at almost any time (www.iamik.ru/?op=full&what=content&ident=500785).
Among the causes, she says, are not only the disputes about the Tajik enclave of Vorukh inside Kyrgyzstan and about 70 places along the border but also about the influx of Kyrgyz migrants into southern Kyrgyzstan and access by one side or the other to water and other resources.
The Vorukh enclave, which resembles Nagorno-Karabakh in some respects, is a 130,000 square kilometer territory with more than 20,000 people, 95 percent of whom are Tajiks, is perhaps the most well-known and neuralgic of these conflicts. Administratively subordinate to Tajikistan’s Sogdian oblast, it is entirely surrounded by Kyrgyz territory.
In addition, the two countries disagree on the demarcation of the border between them. Tajikistan insists on using maps from 1925, which show portions of the southern part of what is now Kyrgyzstan as Tajik territory, while Kyrgyzstan argues that Soviet maps from the 1950s, which show those lands belong to it, be used.
And both these problems are compounded by demographic changes. Ever more Tajiks are moving into southern Kyrgyzstan, not only creating the basis for irredentist challenges including the absorption of territories around Vorukh but undermining Bishkek’s ability to control access to resources in that part of its territory.
These demographic changes, Rakhmatullina says, are now so great that Kyrgyzstan could, if ethnicity becomes the defining factor, lose from a third to a half of its Batken oblast to Tajikistan. At the very least, her argument suggests, Dushanbe would find many supporters for changing Tajikistan’s borders, and Bishkek would have great difficulty in defending its territory.
Conflicts between the two Central Asian countries have been simmering for some time. There were serious clashes in Vorukh-Tanga in 1982 and Matche-Aktatyr in 1988, and over the last two or three years, the Kazakh analyst says, there have been smaller fights between members of the two nationalities at various points along the border.
The most serious of these occurred in March 2008 in Batken oblast “when,” as the Kazakhstan expert writes, “more than 150 Tajik citizens led by the head of the administration of the Isfarin district invaded the territory of Kyrgyzstan and with the use of a bulldozer attempted to destroy a dam which was blocking the flow of irrigation water to Tajik territory.”
These border problems are likely to escalate in the near future because of the political situation in the two capitals, Rakhmatullina says. First, each wants to show its own population and the world that its country is not “a failed state” or at least that it is less so than its neighbor – attitudes that have often led to wars elsewhere.
Second, both governments have their own reasons for deciding that they need to move sooner rather than later, the Kyrgyz because of the expansion of Tajiks into the south and the Tajiks because of a calculation that if they do not move soon, then the Kyrgyz will succeed in enlisting international support to keep the borders where they are.
And third, Rakhmatullina says, both countries have been building up their forces and launching the kind of “information war” against the other, efforts that are likely to make it more difficult for elites to back down when they feel themselves threatened by real or imagined challenges from the other nation.
She concludes ominously: “Given increasing disorders in border territories and conflicts over the definition of borders, access to water and so on, the unilateral actions of Bishkek and Dushanbe without regard to the views of the other, points to the possibility of a real threat of interethnic armed conflicts.”
And those conflicts, the Kazakh analyst says, mean that “the question of the use of arms and the armed forces [and hence of a broader war between these two Central Asian countries] is only a question of time…”