Following deadly clashes on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border last month, relations between the two neighboring states have deteriorated. Miscommunication is rampant and political posturing may worsen the tense situation further.
On the evening of May 25, a charter flight operated by Tajik carrier Somon Air took off from Dushanbe and landed in at Bishkek’s Manas International Airport. After four hours waiting on the tarmac, nine passengers were allowed to disembark and enter Kyrgyzstan but the 177 Tajik citizens on board were refused entry and returned to Dushanbe.
Kyrgyz officials, as reported by RFE/RL, cited a decree from the Cabinet of Ministers imposing temporary restrictions on the entry, exit, stay, and transit of Tajik citizens and goods through Kyrgyz territory starting on May 21. Effectively, the border is closed. But it seemed, per the same report, to apply to specific checkpoints on the border, not making mention of air traffic.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov, meeting with residents of the Chon-Alai region, suggested on May 24 that the restrictions would remain in place until the “problematic issues” are resolved.
Around 450 kilometers of the 970-kilometer Kyrgyz-Tajik border is unsettled. Efforts at negotiating delimitation and demarcation have come and gone over the years with few results.
Maripov urged residents to be patient and said they had a role in strengthening the border.
The next day, a group of Kyrgyz MPs submitted a bill for discussion that would allow residents of border regions to carry weapons. The bill would not directly arm citizens, instead enhancing the operation of so-called border commissioners who under a 2015 law support the Border Guard Service. Specifically trained border commissioners, under the proposed bill, would be armed only during a conflict at the discretion of the Border Guard Service. But what the MPs characterized as “empowering citizens” can be interpreted as adding fuel to the fire of conflict in the region.
Meanwhile, the airport incident illustrates a lack of communication, which can also exacerbate the situation.
Tajikistan’s consul in Bishkek, Abubakr Shodiev, complained to RFE/RL that the Kyrgyz authorities had not told the Tajik side in advance that those arriving on the charter flight would not be allowed to enter. Shodiev said that if Dushanbe had known its citizens would be refused entry, they would not have operated the charter flight.
Permission for the flight, which was arranged by a Kyrgyz travel company, had been granted by the Kyrgyz Civil Aviation Agency on May 14 — before the decree closing the border — but it seems no one notified the Tajik side of the change. A press secretary for the Border Guard Service, which operates under the State Committee for National Security, said they were not responsible for informing the Tajik side.
Miscommunications like this, and the frustrating results, serve to heighten tensions. A single incident can grow beyond itself, proving (to some) the perfidy of the other side and feeding nationalistic narratives. Furthermore, locking Tajik citizens out of Kyrgyzstan — through which many migrate on their way to work in Kazakhstan or Russian, not to mention those who study or live in Kyrgyzstan — until the border issues are resolved could itself generate further sources of grievance between the countries.
On May 27, the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked Tajik citizens to refrain from traveling to or through Kyrgyzstan.