Until recently, Aksai, an ethnic Kyrgyz village on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, had seemed so small and insignificant that most cartographers failed to include it on their maps. But now it has become a flashpoint, with a recent standoff there underscoring the potential for interethnic violence along the poorly defined frontier. The Ferghana Valley’s contorted and porous borders wrap around each other as they separate the provinces of Batken, in Kyrgyzstan, and Soghd, in Tajikistan. Though the countries share a 971-kilometer frontier, less than half of it has been demarcated. In many areas, the de facto boundary severs access to water supplies and the limited arable farmland. With the spring planting season, tensions generally rise. But this year the stakes seem higher: After ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan last summer, which killed more than 400 Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and increasing frictions on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border, locals worry the conflicts between Tajik and Kyrgyz communities may spiral out of control and it is only a matter of time before the standoffs become fatal. On April 8, approximately 60 Aksai residents blocked a road that runs through their village linking Soghd Province to Vorukh, a Tajik enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory. Kyrgyz smashed windows of Tajik vehicles and attempted to beat up their owners, eyewitnesses tell EurasiaNet.org. In retaliation, Tajiks from a neighboring village took several Kyrgyz drivers hostage. Border officials from both sides managed to defuse the situation, securing the hostages’ release. Ask villagers from either side, and furious residents recite a chain of tit-for-tat abductions and beatings going back months. One particularly hurtful attack happened on March 17 when Kyrgyz border guards allegedly burned down 400 apricot trees belonging to a Tajik family. On April 17, Kyrgyzstan’s AKIpress news agency reported that a group of armed Tajik police officers arrested a Kyrgyz trader on disputed territory. Hundreds of Kyrgyz gathered in protest, according to AKIpress. The trader was released on April 19. Kyrgyz officials say there were approximately two dozen similar incidents on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan boundary in 2010, just as there are frequently on the closed Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border. But this year, locals tell EurasiaNet.org the disputes are growing in ferocity. Despite numerous attempts by Kyrgyz and Tajik officials, progress on border delimitation has been slow, reflecting an insufficient sense of urgency in the distant capitals, Bishkek and Dushanbe, and a lack of resources, argues Mahmadiyar Hasanov of the Foundation for Tolerance International, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Batken. Two Tajik enclaves surrounded by Kyrgyz territory are among the toughest dilemmas facing negotiators. Residents of these landlocked islets repeatedly complain of isolation from Tajikistan proper, in particular the inconvenience caused by numerous, shifting customs checkpoints. Tajik authorities have informally sought corridors that would connect the enclaves to mainland Tajikistan, but Kyrgyz officials oppose any land swaps, observers familiar with the negotiations say, arguing they would hamper the movement of Kyrgyz citizens. Apart from the skirmishes, the open borders have created other problems for bilateral relations. Kyrgyz officials say that several former high-ranking officials, including former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s security-chief brother Janysh, escaped to Tajikistan after the April 2010 uprising. Officials in Bishkek also accuse Dushanbe of turning a blind eye to Islamic militant activity and illegal smuggling of cheap fuel from Kyrgyzstan (especially since Russia recently increased its tariffs on fuel exports to Tajikistan, while dropping them for Kyrgyzstan). Privately, Tajik officials bristle over Bishkek’s accusations, but they are unwilling to do anything that would rile their Kyrgyz counterparts, analysts say, noting Tajikistan’s mounting dependence on goodwill from its northern neighbor. “After Uzbekistan tightened its borders [with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan], Kyrgyzstan is the only transit country through which the Tajiks can reach Kazakhstan and Russia and import goods. That’s why Dushanbe is so eager to preserve good relations [with Bishkek]. Otherwise, Tajikistan risks being isolated,” said Khurshed Makhkamov, a coordinator for the Association of Scientific-Technical Intelligentsia (ASTI), a Soghd Province-based NGO that runs programs on conflict prevention. Dushanbe’s unwillingness to confront Bishkek is causing resentment among Tajik residents in the border areas, however. "There is a perception that our officials fail to defend our interests and always defer to Kyrgyz officials. In this situation, [Tajiks] are willing to take matters into their own hands and fight for their interests," said an Isfara-based observer who spoke on condition of anonymity. As a stopgap, some say central governments should delegate more power to local authorities, noting that it was locals who helped prevent bloodshed in Aksai in early April. But others are skeptical, saying that central authorities should beef up law-enforcement to prevent a broader conflict. Over the past several months, the Foundation for Tolerance International and its Tajik counterpart ASTI have organized a series of events between Kyrgyz and Tajik border communities featuring athletic competitions and celebrations of various Central Asian holidays. The events are intended to increase understanding and build confidence between residents. But differences run deep. At a recent celebration of Navruz, a popular Central Asian holiday marking the spring equinox, organized by the NGOs, “community leaders vowed to live in eternal friendship. But when the time came to eat plov” -- a Central Asian staple usually consumed out of a communal dish -- “Tajik and Kyrgyz communities sat separately,” said Bakhtiyar Valiev, a Dushanbe-based journalist who attended the meal. “That was an example of friendship between communities.”
Alisher Khamidov is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asian affairs.