As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) concluded its 22nd summit in Samarkand, fresh clashes broke out between two of its oldest and most important members—Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. According to the Russian news agency RIA, the clashes began early on Wednesday, 14th September, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Zhaparov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon were flying to attend the SCO summit in bordering Uzbekistan, under the watchful eyes of Russian and Chinese Presidents.
Reportedly, Tajik troops entered the southern Kyrgyz province of Batken with tanks, mortar and APCs, and opened fire on Dostuk village and even attacked the airport of Batken town. Based on reports from the Kyrgyz side, nearly 24 people have died in the clashes with 121 wounded. The exact number of military fatalities and injuries have not been reported. Additionally, Kyrgyz forces have evacuated more than 136,000 people from at least two villages in the bordering areas to avoid further loss of life.
From the Tajik side, the border guard service has claimed that Kyrgyz forces have attacked a military outpost along the border and seven villages in the region. Intense firing continued alongside allegations between the two nations throughout Friday.
A Legacy of Border and Territorial Disputes
This is an unfortunate but recurring behavioral pattern between the two former Soviet states. Since independence from the USSR in 1991, the two nations have been embroiled in one border dispute after another. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Kyrgyzstan hosts two Tajik enclaves of Kayragach and Vorukh, thanks to the inefficient Soviet strategy of drawing the borders of its Central Asian republics. Even Uzbekistan has enclaves within Kyrgyzstan, but relations between them are less tense. Since 2009, more than 150 incidents have erupted along the 970-km Kyrgyz-Tajik border, the deadliest year being 2014 in which 30 such clashes occurred.
As recently as April 2021, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan had clashed over a water dispute in the fertile Ferghana Valley which cuts across both the countries and its Soviet-era canals are a critical source of water for both. The same pattern occurred—clashes, accusations, and evacuations. An estimated 50 people on both sides of the border perished over 2 days of conflict, and more than 200 were reportedly injured.
Russian Interests in Maintaining a Messy Peace
These clashes, however, have never lasted for more than a few days, with Russia being quick to intervene and bring down temperatures on both sides. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has been the chief guarantor of peace in the region. Tajikistan is host to the largest Russian military base in the capital Dushanbe, hosting an estimated 7000-strong presence. Since 2003, Russia has been operating an air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, which the Kyrgyz government finally leased to Russia in 2012.
Chinese influence has also increased in the region since the early 2010s, first with plans to develop the extractive industries to fuel its own economy, and then by the Belt and Road Initiative announced in 2013, in which both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan along with Russia are partners. In 2021, China also announced plans to set up military bases in Tajikistan, mainly to watch over interests in restive Afghanistan.
Interestingly, while all of these countries are members of the SCO, which had its grand 2-day summit while the clashes were taking place, President Putin used the CSTO platform to call for peace and negotiations between the two countries. The CSTO is a relatively smaller regional grouping comprising of Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia, and was perhaps Putin’s way of not disturbing the proceedings of the SCO summit.
A Familiar Pattern?
Russia is probably not bothered about the escalation of this conflict as he is quite familiar with the script. Both nations are led by autocratic, nationalist leaders, who depend on such aggressive posturing to maintain their political support base. Even though cooperation is possible through join resource-sharing and border-patrolling mechanisms, even the exchange of territories, neither nation is ready or interested in doing so. However, Putin has too much on his plate right now and he would not appreciate another fly in the room. While the Ukrainian advance in Kharkiv would require the Russian military to recalibrate moves in the 7-month-old war, Armenia and Azerbaijan became embroiled in another conflict earlier this week, where Russia had to step in to mediate.
On Saturday the 17th, the CSTO Secretariat announced that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had agreed to a ceasefire and to hold talks between their respective border forces. While things may have quietened momentarily, it appears that Russia will need to maintain a more visible diplomatic presence in this region.