Nearly a week after a border shootout between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Dushanbe admitted firing mortars, raising the specter of further militarization along the disputed frontier. And conflicting stories about exactly what happened have developed into a heated diplomatic row with the potential to do long-lasting damage to once-decent ties.
On January 17, six days after the violence, a Tajik official finally commented on allegations that his troops had fired mortar rounds at Kyrgyz border guards. Yes, Tajikistan did, said Major-General Sharaf Faizullayev, first deputy commander of Tajikistan’s border troops. But the outnumbered Tajiks used mortars only to protect themselves after first being fired upon by Kyrgyz sharpshooters and without the intention to hurt anyone, he said.
"Given the numerical superiority of the Kyrgyz border guards and the intensity of their fire, a decision was made to use a small-caliber mortar to curb [the Kyrgyz’s] fire with the aim of evacuating the wounded," Faizullayev said in comments carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. He added that the fighting occurred on Tajik territory.
The next day the Kyrgyz Border Service said Faizullayev’s statements “do not correspond to reality” and insisted the clash took place on Kyrgyz territory.
Six members of the Kyrgyz security forces and two Tajik border guards were injured in the January 11 skirmish near Ak-Sai, a border village. The clash, unusual because it included heavy weapons, started when Tajiks protested Kyrgyzstan’s construction of a bypass road through disputed territory. Both sides say the other started shooting first. Both sides say the other was trespassing. Both say the other is lying. Bishkek has withdrawn its ambassador to Tajikistan and insists it will continue building the road. Dushanbe says construction must stop until the two sides agree on a boundary.
That’s the tricky part. Only about half of the 971-kilometer border between the two countries has been delimited since independence in 1991. In recent years, the issue has become more pressing as the population grows in the disputed territories around Vorukh, a Tajik exclave surrounded entirely by Kyrgyz territory. But drawing a line through multiethnic villages where people’s citizenship coincides with their ethnicity is not easy.
All week, various Kyrgyz officials have insisted the road construction will continue. By doing so, they’re turning the road into a point of populist pride that is going to be difficult to abandon. And, with Kyrgyzstan’s politics gripped by vehemently nationalistic rhetoric, the road could be a natural rallying point for an obstreperous opposition unlikely to care if it drags Kyrgyzstan into a full-blown conflict.
Worryingly, in both countries, there’s the question of whether the men on the ground are acting on orders from above or just spontaneously reacting to events as they unfold.
In any case, Tajikistan definitely seems to have lost the PR war. Its delay in explaining what happened, plus the fact that some Tajik officials first denied using mortars, underscores Dushanbe’s inability to manage its message.