Once again, a clash is being reported on the imprecise Kyrgyz-Tajik border in the Ferghana Valley. Like usual, in the days after these regular troubles, a little bit is clear and a lot is not.
What’s clear is that there has been physical violence, property damaged, and hostages taken by opposing residents of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the un-demarcated borderlands. Once again, the conflict was over infrastructure, this time a road. After that, the details get murky, lost in a flurry of accusation and counter-accusation.
Officials on both sides agree the clash occurred on April 27 in the area around the Tajik exclave of Vorukh, which is surrounded entirely by Kyrgyz territory, when Kyrgyz workers were building or repairing a road. It’s unclear if their activities were government-backed or a local private initiative.
The three countries sharing the Ferghana Valley – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – inherited unclear borders at independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Efforts to define them have been halting, especially in populated areas.
According to a Kyrgyz Interior Ministry spokesman cited by Bishkek’s 24.kg news agency, on April 27 Kyrgyz workers were building a road connecting Aksai – a Kyrgyz village that abuts Vorukh – and a neighboring village. Around 3 p.m. about 100 residents of Tajikistan, unhappy with the roadwork, which they alleged was happening on their territory, beat up some construction workers and broke the windows of bulldozers and excavators. As local residents from both sides gathered and grew hostile (with Tajiks outnumbering Kyrgyz 10 to one, according to Kyrgyz police), Tajik border guards fired warning shots into the air. After that, about 4,000 Kyrgyz and about 7,000 Tajiks faced off and blocked the road.
Tajik police presented a somewhat different version of events, according to Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. They said the troubles came less than two weeks after Tajik residents in Vorukh, claiming the road ran through their territory, told the Kyrgyz workers to halt construction, and officials from the respective Kyrgyz and Tajik provinces bordering each other there agreed that work would be suspended until the residents’ concerns were allayed.
Tajik police also said Vorukh residents broke an excavator window with a rock; they added, however, that this angered Kyrgyz residents of Aksai, who retaliated by beating up (an unspecified number) and taking captive 17 people from two Tajik cars, driving via Kyrgyzstan from Vorukh to Isfara, in Tajikistan. A crowd of Tajiks then spontaneously gathered to avenge their own, the police were cited as saying.
Citing Interfax, Gazeta.ru quotes the head of Batken police, Arstan Usenov, as saying that the Tajiks were the first to turn to violence and take hostages. “The residents of the Kyrgyz village began doing repair work on the road without warning border guards, which provoked the conflict. And citizens of Tajikistan first beat up the Kyrgyz workers, then captured them and took them over to Tajik territory,” Usenov said.
The region around Vorukh is the scene of frequent clashes between the two groups as residents compete for decreasing water supplies and pastureland. Some villages lie in checkerboards; homes of ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajiks alternate and, asked which country they live in, homeowners name the one that matches their ethnicity. Kyrgyz complain of “creeping” Tajik migration as Tajiks move into homes abandoned by Kyrgyz forced to migrate abroad in search of work. Batken Province is one of the poorest and most remote in Kyrgyzstan.
Lately, clashes have occurred several times a year. Each time, the two governments promise to speed up efforts to demarcate and delimit the border.
Bishkek’s 24.kg cites the Kyrgyz prime minister’s representative in Batken saying the road that sparked the conflict was supposed to bypass the nearby Uzbek exclave of Sokh, where a conflict earlier this year between ethnic Tajiks living in the Uzbek exclave and local Kyrgyz resulted in a hostages standoff and a humanitarian crisis as some villages were cut off from supplies for weeks.
Tajik police say all the Tajik hostages have been released and two Tajik police officers hospitalized. Kyrgyz officials say four Kyrgyz were injured, but that the situation is calm and the roadblocks cleared.
Over the weekend, Kyrgyz Deputy Interior Minister Kursan Asanov met with locals and officials on the Tajik side. 24.kg reports that a Tajik official apologized for the incident and promised to reimburse the Kyrgyz side for the damage. Asanov promised that soon the border will be demarcated. It seems more likely the incident will be forgotten until the next clash, a few months down the road.