Recent riots at border posts in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan highlight the growing risk of inter-ethnic conflict in and around Central Asia's Ferghana Valley region. Observers say the source of popular discontent is governments' inability to resolve border disputes and regulate inter-state commerce.
Kyrgyz and Tajik authorities are investigating the causes of rioting at border checkpoints, aiming to prevent further violent outbursts. On January 3, about 300 residents of the Isfara region in Tajikistan's Soghd Province destroyed a Kyrgyz border checkpoint near the village of Kok Terek in Batken Province. Two Kyrgyz law-enforcement officers were reportedly injured in the attack.
In response, about 100 local Kyrgyz citizens sacked a Tajik checkpoint at Jak-Oruk in Soghd Province, local media reported on January 4. Quick action by Kyrgyz and Tajik security forces prevented the violence from spreading. "No one knows what might have happened as a consequence, if Kyrgyz and Tajik law enforcement agencies had not intervened," an Itar-Tass news agency commentary said.
After officials restored order, they dismantled all border checkpoints in the area, located in the densely populated Ferghana Valley. They also pledged to accelerate efforts to delimit the disputed border. The next round of bilateral border talks is scheduled for March in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.
The inter-governmental commission on border issues, which last met in December in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, has identified about 71 land plots totaling roughly 21 square kilometers that are claimed by both countries, according to local media outlets.
Among the toughest dilemmas facing Tajik and Kyrgyz negotiators is the presence of two Tajik enclaves on Kyrgyz territory: Warukh and western Qalacha. Residents of these enclaves and neighboring regions have long complained about isolation from Tajikistan proper, in particular the inconvenience caused by numerous customs checkpoints. Local observers say that the Tajik authorities have informally sought land corridors that would connect the enclaves to mainland Tajikistan, but Kyrgyz officials oppose such corridors, saying they would hamper the movement of Kyrgyz citizens.
The origins of the January border incidents are themselves a matter of dispute. One Kyrgyz version, aired by Kyrgyz state television on January 4, holds that Kyrgyz anger began building in October of 2002, when Tajik authorities unilaterally established two border posts in the Isfara region and began imposing customs duties on shuttle traders.
In a January 5 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Batken Governor Mamat Aibalaev asserted that the Tajik action violated an agreement that prohibited the establishment of new checkpoints on disputed territories. In retaliation, Kyrgyz authorities established the border post at Kok-Terek.
One Tajik account, meanwhile, said the incidents were provoked by "provocative" actions by Kyrgyz border guards in their inspection of buses and vehicles containing Tajiks, Itar-Tass reported January 4.
During both the Soviet era and the early post-Soviet period, the Kyrgyz-Tajik border was porous and largely unguarded. Border delimitation did not become an issue until 1999, when militants belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) staged raids into southern Kyrgyzstan. IMU fighters also carried out operations in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan during the summer of 2000. [For additional information see the Eursaia Insight archives].
The IMU incursions prompted Central Asian states to tighten border controls. Kyrgyz and Tajik authorities increased the number of customs checkpoints and deployed additional military troops to prevent the infiltration of Islamic militants, as well as to step up the fight against drugs and arms trafficking.
The heightened security measures had serious economic ramifications, however. The expansion of border restrictions hampered trade, denying many farmers in the area their chief source of income.
"The Ferghana Valley borderlands were once a dynamic and intricate mosaic of ethnic groups, kinship networks, land-use patterns and economic activity. Recent border policies of Ferghana Valley states have shattered that mosaic," said Nick Megoran, a political geographer at Cambridge University.
"Many villagers used to live off profits from an annual trip to sell fruit in lucrative Russian markets," Megoran added. "Now, those lorries stand idle, as border taxes and controls make the trade uneconomical."
Widespread harassment and extortion of travelers and traders by ill-trained customs officials and border forces help aggravate existing tension. In addition, scarce natural resources particularly arable land and water helps fuel popular concerns about the future.
"The repeat probability of violent ethnic skirmishes is very high given the vivid history of conflicts in the region," said Robert Avazbekov, head of the Batken office of the Foundation for Tolerance International, a local conflict-prevention non-governmental organization.
During the late Soviet era, the Ferghana Valley became engulfed in inter-ethnic turmoil. Perhaps the most prominent conflict involved Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the Osh Region of Kyrgyzstan in 1990. Avazbekov said Kyrgyz and Tajiks also fought over land. "In 1989, ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajiks clashed for a disputed territory near the village of Uch-Dobo. Now they [Kyrgyz and Tajiks] are competing for about 70 disputed plots," he said.
Over the past year, the mining of border areas has also become an issue. Regional governments, especially Uzbekistan, sowed mines to hinder the movement of Islamic militants, but so far civilians have seemed to suffer the most. According to local media reports, since November 1999 at least 12 civilians have died after stepping on land mines.
Observers say that continued unilateral initiatives to resolve border issues could spark new inter-ethnic clashes, and even a confrontation between armed forces. Some local observers claim that shooting incidents between Kyrgyz and Tajik border forces have already occurred in recent years.
"Agreements [on border delimitation], if made without due regard to the interests of those in the border areas, can actually create hardship and disruption for local residents. As ammunition for populist politicians, they can even intensify conflicts," Megoran said.
"Conclusion of a thorough border delimitation treaty followed by demarcation of the boundary 'on the ground' normally takes many years: if hurried for political reasons, a delimitation agreement can store up problems for the future." Megoran added.
Alisher Khamidov is a Muskie Fellow at Joan B. Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University.