For the first time since deadly border clashes last spring, Kyrgyzstan is allowing a limited number of Tajiks to enter the country.
They will pass beefed-up military defenses on their way north.
Some 1,932 Tajik university students, who were unable to start the school year due to the disruption, may now cross into the country, Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers Edil Baisalov announced on October 21.
President Sadyr Japarov quickly emphasized that this is the only concession he is ready to make. Other Tajik citizens will not be permitted to enter until the two sides agree on the precise whereabouts of their border, a process that has crept along for decades.
“The sooner we finish the delimitation and demarcation, the sooner we will open the border,” Japarov said at an October 23 press conference. He added that a delegation would soon travel to Dushanbe to continue talks. Last time the intergovernmental commission met, earlier this month, it settled on another 8 kilometers, he said, bringing the agreed sections of border to 519 kilometers of a total 970-980 kilometers.
The uncertainty over the border has often caused tension among communities in these contested sections of the Fergana Valley – perhaps the most serious incident having occurred at the end of April, when fighting broke out over control of a critical piece of irrigation infrastructure. At least 36 Kyrgyz nationals and 20 Tajik citizens are known to have been killed in fighting, which involved troops from both sides exchanging gun and mortar fire. Tens of thousands of Kyrgyz people were forced to flee and dozens of their homes and businesses were set alight.
In May, Kyrgyzstan imposed restrictions on Tajik citizens entering, leaving and transiting its territory. Authorities also halted the transport of goods across multiple land crossings, which left remote parts of Tajikistan even more isolated than normal.
Bishkek-based political analyst Denis Berdakov says the unilateral action is necessary to force Dushanbe to negotiate.
“This is the right decision, otherwise Tajikistan will say ‘let's consider the issue for another 20 years’,” Berdakov told Eurasianet on October 26. “Paradoxically, this is the only way: peaceful but tough. Because […] Tajikistan depends on us for the Internet, for trade and for air crossings. We are taking advantage of our position."
Repeating a concern expressed frequently in the Kyrgyz press, Berdakov added that the Tajik population along the contested frontier is growing faster than the Kyrgyz, putting Dushanbe at an advantage in future negotiations.
Against this backdrop, Bishkek is upping its military spending.
On October 21, officials received $3.5 million worth of kit intended for border troops, including armored vehicles and sniper rifles, it purchased from Dubai.
Kamchybek Tashiyev, the head of the State Committee for National Security, announced that Bishkek would also soon receive Russian and Turkish armed drones, including the Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicle, which reportedly played a crucial role in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia last year.
Japarov said the equipment was purchased exclusively for defense.
“We have never in 30 years started a conflict with anyone, have not seized foreign territories with weapons in our hands. And this will not happen in the future. But if there are attempts to seize our territories, the answer will be tough,” he said.
Tajik officials have not publicly commented on the chest-thumping.
Berdakov believes that the two countries should be able to delimit about 95 percent of the undefined border without too much trouble. But the remaining 5 percent will be difficult due to conflicts between local residents. In some populated sections of the Fergana Valley, Kyrgyz and Tajiks have lived together in disputed areas for generations. Today, their homes are arranged in a “checkerboard” pattern – there is no defined border and citizenship coincides with ethnicity. As the population grows, and arable land in the surrounding valleys grows scarce, the increasing militarization of the border raises the potential for violence.
“Any decision will be difficult for the [local] population to accept. This is not a question of how we will agree. The issue is that we Kyrgyz believe this is our land, and the Tajiks that it is their land. As long as both parties believe so, no one wins,” Berdakov said.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.