The recent clash on the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan again drove our attention toward the region’s volatility. The Fergana valley consists of three countries, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, which are divided based on ethnicity. The valley becomes the cradle of agriculture because it is the confluence point of the Naryn and Kara Darya rivers. This densely populated region of central Asia was again in the news due to the border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2022, resulting in mass relocation and violent clashes. The region has a history of violence over resource sharing, the current clash being compared to a war-like situation.
Major skirmishes in the recent past
Scholars have always been alarmed about the unresolved borders at different sections as they remain the potential to become an active conflict. The threat became real on April 28, 2021, near the Vorukh enclave, which remained disputed between the two countries and took the name of ‘April war.’ This conflict was the first of its kind as the disagreement enhanced from the local level to the use of heavy ammunition. The April conflict experienced large numbers of victims and increased levels of damage on both sides, resulting in the closure of the Kyrgyz border for Tajikistan citizens. The issue failed to achieve any resolution, proving that the skirmishes along the disputed section of the borders could not be easily solved with bilateral border agreements. A similar escalation was observed in 2022, which broke out in September, two weeks before the 2022 SCO summit in Uzbekistan. The issue initially took place in the Batken province and Isfana village of Kyrgyz by Tajik citizens. This incident followed the same levels of escalation as the previous ones. During an armed exchange, the conflict spread in Teskey, Vorukh, and Batken districts. On Sept.16, both countries engaged in intense exchanges using tanks, heavy artillery, and weapons. Both countries accused each other of attacking civil infrastructures and civilians and violating the ceasefire agreements. Kyrgyzstan authorities have reported that 1,37,000 people were relocated to the Osh and Batken region. Various international watchers speculate that the Tajik president intended to divert attention from the protests in the Badakhshan region. The Russian president always provided mediation and urged for a peace agreement. Turkish and Iranian authorities have also shown interest in aiding resolution and mediation.
Causes of the conflict
The leading cause of the conflict is the border issues in central Asia which have remained unsolved for the last thirty two years. The five central Asian countries gained independence with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The state formation in the region remains unnatural since the borders were formed by the USSR, separating the different ethnicities into different states who sought to live together in a shared geography. The Fergana valley observes the most complex border as the borders formed during the 1930s did not consider the inhabitants. However, the three countries did resolve the border issue internally by delimiting their borders through various agreements over the years.
Nevertheless, the constant skirmishes prevail. The resource-sharing agreements during the Soviet era maintained peace. However, with the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, these agreements broke down and pushed the new states into resource-sharing conflict, adding to the territorial claims. The borders, in simple terms, prevent national unity in countries and create resentment among the neighbors. Serving Soviet Union’s purpose, the consistent differences among neighbors, when escalated to conflicts in the future, would make the region dependent on the regional hegemon Russia for mediation, thereby maintaining Russia’s influence in its backyard. Hence, it becomes essential for the parts of central Asian republics to solve the border issues bilaterally in order to avoid external influences. The border commissions of both states have concluded delimitations on five hundred kilometers of shared borders out of the nine hundred seventy kilometers. They left seventy such disputed sections, which became significant causes of conflicts. Usually, the conflict pattern in the valley follows three levels: local level, mainly at the border villages, between different ethnicities; at the level of border troops, where both side’s troops get involved in firing; ending with representatives of both states meeting with the desire to reach an agreement which remains unfulfilled.
Another primary reason for conflict is the issue of water sharing that rises in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. These rivers originate in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively. As Uzbekistan is a low-lying nation, it receives a significant share of water resources, making it unequal. Due to the dependency on agriculture for cotton exports which make up a significant share of the economy, Uzbekistan rejects any hydro-power plant development by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The sharing system adopted during the Soviet era saw growing contentions after independence as the priorities of the newly independent states shifted toward their national interest.
Such skirmishes are prone to violent clashes even in the future, given many unresolved issues in the valley. The resource and territorial claims are interrelated, and so are the ethnic conflicts and territorial claims. The multi-ethnic nations had the presence of diverse ethnicities across the borders, mainly in several enclaves with ethnic minorities, and their inclusion in the state after the independence, the new local governments halted the cross-border transition facilitated by the Soviet government. Such actions made this diverse and densely populated region a tense one. The new republics used different maps of the Soviet era, both civilian and military, to lay claims on territories according to their convenience. Therefore, these three interconnected issues create volatility in the region.
Even though the skirmishes are quickly suppressed by Russia’s political intervention, they remain a signal to tense relations in the area over water sharing. Moreover, in the densely populated Fergana valley, where the borders tear through ethnicities and resources, localized water disputes can be aggravated into regional tensions due to climate change. While these conflicts can be subsided by political negotiations, the distrust and the need for resources in the valley may escalate any skirmish into armed conflict rapidly.
[Image by Uwe Dedering, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author has graduated in economics from Madras Christian College, Chennai. She is currently pursing her Master’s in international studies from Christ University, Bangalore. She was a research intern at Indian Council of World Affairs.