Peace on the brink in Central Asia

The border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has reached a new bottom. The clashes of the past week left at least 40-50 people killed, mostly civilians. More than a hundred houses were burned and remnants of good neighbourly relations in the region shattered. Clashes, involving stones and guns, have lately become regular events. However, the main “novelty” of the conflict is apparent: an unprovoked military attack against civilians and occupation of villages of a neighbouring state. The Tajik military set a precedent that revealed the new depths of insecurity in the region.

The conflict started on 28 April at the Golovnoi water supply facility. The latter is a critical piece of infrastructure distributing water to irrigation canals of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have numerous disputes over the border in the region, Kyrgyzstan’s ownership of the Golovnoi water facility had not been contested in the past. On 28 April 2021, the local government of Tajikistan’s Isfara district installed cameras on an electric pole at the water supply facility. Residents of Kyrgyzstan’s villages protested, with crowds exchanging stones. Governors’ talks did not help, and on 29 April, residents clashed again. Troops engaged on both sides, leaving scores of soldiers and civilians dead. Border posts and houses in the adjacent area came under gunfire while the two governments accused each other of shooting first.

On the same day, 29 April, the Tajik military started shelling villages in Kyrgyzstan’s Leilek district, some 60 kilometres from the Batken/Chorku area, the site of initial clashes. Over 20,000 people fled homes to safer parts of the region h. The Tajik military occupied the settlements for three days, leaving over 70 houses, several stores, school buildings and gas stations burnt. At least three persons were killed, including a 12-year old girl. The exact scale of loss and damage remains to be established. Overall, as of 2 May 2021, Kyrgyzstan reported 35 deaths, including three soldiers and 32 civilians. Tajik authorities have not confirmed, but Ozodi Radio reported the deaths of nine soldiers and eight civilians.

The confrontation stopped late evening on 1 May. The two sides agreed to withdraw troops and unblock roads. Tajik side also agreed to free the occupied villages and release ten Kyrgyz citizens it had taken hostage. Other details of the agreement remain unknown, but the sides confirmed plans to fast-forward border delimitation.

The coming weeks will test the parties’ commitment to de-escalation. While fighting stopped, establishing accountability and justice remains unlikely. The two countries present opposite narratives of the conflict. Establishing facts will require a thorough investigation that at least one party will likely reject. Tajikistan seeks to avoid responsibility for attacks on civilians and destruction of villages in Leilek. Kyrgyzstan, caught off-guard militarily, will prioritize avoiding further clashes over establishing justice. Returning residents to their towns and rebuilding destroyed houses and infrastructure are their immediate tasks.

While more details will be emerging in the coming days and weeks, several broader observations could be made at this point.

First, the events set a precedent of a direct attack, occupation and partial destruction of villages of a neighbouring country. Conflicts in the past have never involved such actions. It is unlikely that a proper investigation will follow. However, to call a spade a spade, evidence from the villages of Leilek strongly suggests a Tajik military attack against the civilian population on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. BBC’s photos illustrate the case, and these come from the part of the region where there was no involvement of military from Kyrgyzstan. Furthermore, RFE/RL provides the map illustrating how the events in Leilek could not be seen as part of clashes in Batken/Chorku area.

… to call a spade a spade, evidence from the villages of Leilek strongly suggests a Tajik military attack against the civilian population on the territory of Kyrgyzstan

Second, the conflict demonstrated that the two governments remain ill-prepared, if not outright unwilling, to address the pressing problems of the local population. They have failed a test in the past, and they did it again last week. The residents of the area continue to suffer from unresolved issues related to land, roads or water. The question of installing video cameras on an electric pole would hardly have become a problem if it had been first discussed by the two sides and not left to residents’ discretion. Peacebuilding in the region has been a thriving industry, and peacebuilders are undoubtedly preferable to peacekeepers. However, such programmes can only add value if there are genuine allies in national governments, inevitably the elephants in the room. The population on both sides of the border deserves every effort to be taken by national governments to prevent violence, not prepare for violence.

Third, the bloody conflict exposed the utter irrelevance of regional security frameworks. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are parts of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led regional security alliance. Such shared membership in the CSTO did not prevent clashes and the use of the military against civilians. Russian leadership pretended it was caught off-guard. Whether Moscow had its hands tied due to intensifying military cooperation with Tajikistan or whether it indeed became a less relevant actor in the region is up for debate. Regardless, the existing regional security architecture has proven to be as illusory as “eternal friendship” in the region. The gap was filled by Uzbekistan’s president Mirziyoyev, who called both Kyrgyz and Tajik counterparts before the latter two spoke to each other.

Peace was broken again. Now the question is what should be and what can be done. The answers will be difficult and self-evident, and certainly not now. There is no alternative to Kyrgyz and Tajik communities to further live next to each other and share water, roads and bazaars. People of the region lived in peace for centuries, but the memory of it is fading under the pressure of politics and nationalism. Generations have grown up that has only seen regular fighting for survival despite the rhetoric of friendship.

The conflict of the past week added a new layer of insecurity. In the near future, the two countries will likely move towards cementing the borders and reducing mutual dependencies wherever they find it possible. In the longer run, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will need competent governments able to address the most acute problems of the population in the region. They will also have to grow into responsible members of the regional and international “societies” of states, aware of and adhering to common rules and norms.

Shairbek Dzhuraev, PhD, is co-founder and president of Crossroads Central Asia.

This is a revised version of the commentary posted at Azerbaijan Today on 04 May 2021.

Photo on the front page illustrates a destroyed building in Leilek district of Batken oblast, courtesy to Aibek Biibosunov and RFE/RL.

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