Soviet map of the Fergana Valley circa 1930. Many of these borders later changed. Vorukh (Варух), for example, is now a Tajik exclave surrounded by Kyrgyzstan.
No villagers were taken hostage this time. No one got shot. But a disputed parcel of the populous Fergana Valley, where there is little government, little water, and little arable land, has seen yet another dicey ethnic standoff in recent days.
This time, after an arson attack allegedly destroyed a Kyrgyz teahouse in a disputed spot on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan frontier, local Kyrgyz reportedly blamed an ethnic Tajik and blocked the only road to a Tajik exclave, Vorukh. Some reports said Tajiks then blocked a road connecting the Kyrgyz village, Ak-Sai, with the regional seat of government, Batken.
Vorukh, home to approximately 30,000 Tajik citizens, is surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Though the status of the exclave is not in dispute, the land surrounding it, including most of Ak-Sai, is. During the regulardisputes, Kyrgyz living in Ak-Sai – situated in a narrow valley of apricot orchards – can besiege Vorukh. They reportedly reopened the road on December 21.
It's been a tough year in this forgotten corner of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In April, Kyrgyz roadwork in Ak-Sai sparked a clash between thousands of villagers and a brief hostage crisis. In May, hundreds of villagers blocked roads after Kyrgyz border guards detained a Tajik citizen. Six were reportedly injured in the standoff.
When Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were Soviet republics, the location of the border wasn’t clear but didn’t matter much. Kyrgyz and Tajiks lived in one giant state that settled disagreements through a heavy-handed, centralized apparatus. But since Moscow’s retreat in 1991, the weak successor states that inherited the populous Fergana Valley have failed to agree on the borders twisting through the patchwork of ethnicities. Each wants as much territory as it can get and refers to different Soviet-era maps that judge in its favor. So far, only about half of the 971-kilometer frontier between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has been delimited.
(Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also have regular border disputes with their other Fergana neighbor, Uzbekistan, including, this year, a controversial shootout and a weeks-long hostage crisis.)
Making delimitation harder, many villages near the borders lie in checkerboards; near Ak-Sai the 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.
Locals of both ethnicities frequently complain that corrupt soldiers and police shakedown members of other ethnicities. Often the only contact villagers have with authorities are with these conscripts. While Kyrgyz and Tajik officials in regional capitals say their respective border guards work well with communities in the disputed territories, local residents talk of ethnically targeted harassment: servicemen limiting their movement, searching their belongings and trying to extract bribes. The allegations do not come as a surprise in countries known for their corruption and indigence.
Authorities on both sides constantly promise to address border demarcation. But their efforts, especially in populated areas, are halting. Despite multiple meetings each year, a generation after independence they have little to show. Either the governments lack the will or the strength to confront the simmering issues.
So locals resolve their own disputes.
Last year, a tax inspector in Ak-Sai told me the story of an old Kyrgyz man who built a house on contested territory. He said, “The Tajik border guards came and beat him up and took him to Tajikistan. His sons blocked the road until the Tajiks let him go. That’s how we resolved the issue.”