Central Asia has not been so unstable since the fall of the Soviet Union

Territorial disputes in the region point to a changing geopolitical order, particularly as a result of the war in Ukraine

A police officer walks on a road as smoke rises after an explosion during a de-mining operation near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in the village of Ak-Say, some 1000 kilometres from Bishkek, on September 21, as the worst violence the two ex-Soviet countries have seen in years broke out last week on their contested border.  AFP
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We might hear little of them, but there have been around 230 outbreaks of frontier violence between between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union some 30 years ago. That matters. The countries themselves might be relatively small, but the region in which they lie, Central Asia, is not, both in terms of geography and geopolitical significance.

This is particularly the case today. Russia, with its significant and historic footprint in the area, is under severe economic and diplomatic strain due to the war in Ukraine. Afghanistan, which borders the region, is in turmoil and questions remain over quite how dangerous a Taliban regime will be for its neighbours.

That is why the most recent border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan might be different from the hundreds of others, and in a very concerning way. First, it was by far the worst outbreak since the two countries became independent – roughly 100 people died, and 140,000 others fled from their homes.

Second, it happened in a region, the Ferghana Valley, which has been the crucible for several extremist groups, most prominently the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, responsible for several large attacks in Pakistan, and allied to the Afghan Taliban. While militants were not involved in the recent outbreak of fighting, they thrive on insecurity. A worsening conflict would enable them to make further inroads in the region.

Roughly 100 people have died, and 140,000 others fled from their homes. A previously loyal client state, Armenia, is unhappy too

The third concerning factor in the outbreak of fighting is that it happened just as regional leaders were meeting in Uzbekistan for a round of talks in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation – a process led by China to improve economic ties and security across Central Asia. Russia still sees itself as the guarantor of security on the borders of the old Soviet Union, and has mediated between Bishkek and Dushanbe over border clashes in the past, but now appears to have lost its ability to reduce violence.

Both of the warring countries are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation that brings together a handful of former Soviet bloc states. But collective security clearly has no meaning if Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon was confident enough to pursue the conflict as aggressively as he did while Russian President Vladimir Putin was actually in the region. A ceasefire he agreed with Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov, when they met at the summit, did not last a day.

Mr Putin faced difficulties in the SCO talks, with open scepticism over his Ukraine policy from both China and India. His inability to influence two allies shows just how much impact Ukraine has had beyond Europe. Far from being the projection of military might that Russia wanted, its struggles in Ukraine instead reveal weakness, and the waves from that go far. Another previously loyal client state, Armenia, has recently signalled that it too is unhappy. The world would be wise not to ignore the dynamics of conflict in this remote landlocked region which have the capacity to cause tensions far wider.

The background to the Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict goes back to Russia’s land grabs across the steppes to the south in the 19th century. The Soviet Union inherited colonial control of Central Asia as far as the northern Afghan frontier after the 1917 revolution. Until the break-up of the Soviet Union, precise borders did not matter in the landlocked mountainous region. But that changed in 1991. The mapmaking that drew up meandering borders of the new countries was untidy. Unresolved disputes over almost half of the 1,000-kilometre border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been the cause of simmering quarrels that have often boiled over to open conflict.

The borders carved out in the early 1990s prioritised linguistic and tribal groupings, but left many anomalies, including a number of enclaves of people controlled by one country, but surrounded by land of another. It was in just such a Tajik-controlled region, called Vorukh, with a population of 30,000, in Kyrgyzstan that the recent fighting begun.

Vorukh is on the south side of the Ferghana Valley that runs east-west, surrounded by mountains, through three countries. Most of the fertile lowlands of the valley are in Uzbekistan, with Uzbek territory shaped like a long tongue bordered on the north and south by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Each country blames the other for provoking the recent clashes, but there is no doubt that Kyrgyzstan came off worse, with large displacements of population and the raising of the Tajik flag in villages claimed by Tajikistan in order to link Vorukh directly with its land, although it is unclear whether those troops have since withdrawn or are planning annexation of territory. The territorial disputes are exacerbated by arguments over access to water.

There is one other key regional dynamic in play. Tajikistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan across a narrow river, is playing a pivotal role as host of a number of leading Afghan figures who are opposed to Taliban rule, including Ahmad Massoud, who shares Tajik ethnicity, and whose troops are already engaged in active conflict with the Taliban in north-eastern Afghanistan.

When the west took its eye off Afghanistan before in the early 1990s, it led to a chain of events which ended in the attacks of 9/11. So we know the consequences of ignoring this region. The new outbreak of fighting has implications for the wider world in a region where great power rivalry has been in play since the days of the so-called Great Game between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century. Russia has been exposed in Ukraine in the face of a determined enemy, and its capacity to influence events in Central Asia is now being challenged, leaving a dangerous power vacuum where regional conflicts may be more serious.

Published: October 17, 2022, 2:00 PM
Updated: October 19, 2022, 8:44 AM