An exchange of fire between troops on a disputed section of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border reportedly left at least one dead and several injured on July 10. Tensions have risen sharply again in this volatile part of the Fergana Valley after negotiations over a controversial road construction project fell apart earlier this week.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, about 30 Tajik citizens were trying to build a water pipeline from Kyrgyz territory to the Vorukh exclave, a parcel of Tajik territory surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz border guards demanded they stop, the Tajiks threw stones and eventually troops from the two sides exchanged fire.
According to the Tajik-language service of Radio Liberty, citing a local doctor in Vorukh, one Tajik national (apparently a civilian) died and five were injured in the exchange of fire. Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reports seven wounded. Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry says the Kyrgyz border guards picked a fight, shot without warning, and that the Tajik border guards did not fire a single shot.
Later in the day, the Kyrgyz Border Service said Tajik border guards had opened fire on another Kyrgyz checkpoint, this time with mortars and grenades.
Tensions have grown in the disputed areas around Vorukh and the Kyrgyz village of Ak-Sai (map here) in recent years as the population has increased and the two governments push the idea of firm national boundaries in a region where none have previously existed. In January, arguments over the construction of a Kyrgyz road led to an hour-long shootout between border guards that left at least seven injured. The Kyrgyz say the Tajiks fired shells and tried to destroy a small dam. I visited the region shortly after the violence:
The firefight coincided with Kyrgyz efforts to build a new road that would free them from crossing territory controlled by Tajiks. Tajik officials, meanwhile, say the road is being built on contested territory, and complain that it would allow the Kyrgyz to blockade a Tajik enclave that is home to 30,000 people. Kyrgyz officials promise they would never obstruct passage. But in recent weeks Kyrgyz villagers, angered by disputes with Tajik border guards, have on several occasions blocked the only road that connects the enclave to the rest of Tajikistan.
When tensions rise, politicians in distant capitals thump their chests and send more soldiers—eg the Kyrgyz spetsnaz billeted in the village school at Ak-Sai, who have been there since the shootings in January. A vicious cycle is becoming established. Each country’s patrols rile the other’s civilians, begetting more hostility. (It is no help that the new generation of conscripts, who earn about $5 per month, no longer speak a common language.)
After that shootout, the Kyrgyz closed their border posts for almost two months, bruising isolated Tajikistan’s economy.
Today’s shooting follows a breakdown in talks on July 7 over construction of the same road, which Kyrgyz see as essential to their security and the Tajiks in Vorukh say will make them prisoners.
In February, Kyrgyzstan’s chief negotiator described the problem in an interview with EurasiaNet.org:
Deputy Prime Minister Tokun Mamytov admits that drawing a border is no easy task. Since 2006, the two sides have not delimited a single one of the 460 contested kilometers along their shared frontier, which totals 971 kilometers. Negotiations are “deadlocked” because the Kyrgyz refer to maps from the 1950s and the Tajiks from the 1920s. The frontier mattered little when both republics answered to the Kremlin in Moscow. Throughout the Soviet era the border shifted as collective farms traded jurisdiction over land and crisscrossing canals transformed barren moonscape-like terrain into fertile farmland.
Mamytov, one of the country’s top-ranking security officials, describes how during negotiations the Tajiks tell him, “‘If you build this road, you won’t be under our control and we want you to be under Tajik control.’ They say we’ll be too independent, we must travel through Tajik territory.” (After promising to respond to written questions, the office of Mamytov’s counterpart in negotiations, Tajik Deputy Prime Minister Murodali Alimardon, refused to comment.)
Mamytov denies his government would ever cut the road to Vorukh as a punitive measure. But such fear on the part of the surrounded Tajiks is understandable. As the road construction moved closer to Ak-Sai and tensions mounted throughout 2013, local villagers on several occasions tried cutting off neighboring communities, both Tajik and Kyrgyz, after arguments.
Today’s shooting is the second known instance of violence between the two generally friendly countries’ security forces. It is unlikely to be the last. The death of a local could exacerbate nationalist passions in one of the most densely populated and ethnically diverse parts of Central Asia.
Updated to include report of second skirmish and Tajik Foreign Ministry response.