On September 14, when Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards exchanged gunfire — a new flash of conflict along a long-tense border — the presidents of the two countries were both in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. International attention was hyper-focused on the meeting of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, on his first foreign foray in more than two years, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose war in Ukraine is not going well.
The SCO began its organization life as the Shanghai Five in 1996, formed with the signing of the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions by the heads of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. For an organization formed with the express purpose of building trust among members, disarming border regions, and encouraging regional cooperation, it has managed to do frightfully little. The SCO’s mission, and membership, has expanded since its founding but its effectiveness is questionable.
That much was made clear when an outbreak of violent conflict between two member states during the annual leaders summit drew so little attention from the organization.
On the sidelines of the Samarkand summit on September 16, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, met. After that bilateral meeting the two sides released rather anodyne statements. Both noted that the presidents had met and discussed the border situation. The Kyrgyz statement said that the two leaders had agreed to a ceasefire, though the Tajik statement did not mention it.
That same day, fighting resumed on the border — two days after the initial incident. As Eurasianet reported, Kyrgyz authorities said Tajik forces used mortars to strike targets along the border and as far into Kyrgyzstan as Batken city, about 10 km from the border itself. The Tajik security services, meanwhile, claimed Kyrgyz special forces had attacked residential buildings and unconfirmed reports alleged Kyrgyzstan had employed its newly delivered Turkish Bayraktar drone. Much of the conflict appears to center around Vorukh, a Tajik exclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, along a mountainous border that remains largely undemarcated. The border’s unsettled nature immensely complicates the situation and reporting on it.
As in previous instances of conflict along the undemarcated portion of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, both sides have accused the other of starting the conflict and escalating it. Especially since the violence in April 2021, the region’s border has been tense. Among Kyrgyz, the situation is being described as a Tajik invasion. As Aijan Sharshenova argued, the situation has moved beyond a simple “border skirmish” and represents a degree of aggression that has not been seen before. The shelling of Batken is damning, as it sits in undisputed Kyrgyz territory. That it was struck was either deliberate or evidence of serious incompetence on the part of the Tajik military — neither a good thing.
Further complications include the asymmetric nature of media across the border. Journalists had much quicker access to the Kyrgyz side of the border and the story, with Kyrgyz officials giving numerous statements and at various levels of government. On the Tajik side, journalists have had less access and officials have commented far less on the situation. There is also an asymmetry in the political circumstances in each country, with less space to contradict the official narrative in Tajikistan than Kyrgyzstan. Much media in both countries have hardened around their national narrative regarding the conflict.
Meanwhile, Japarov has been much more engaged domestically regarding the conflict than Rahmon. A look at the respective presidential websites paints two different pictures. On the Kyrgyz site, there are a number of press releases, including an address by the president to the Kyrgyz people (September 19), a decree on assistance for affected areas in Batken and Osh (September 18), a report of a call between Japarov and Putin (September 18), an earlier address by Japarov regarding the border (September 17), and so on. The two most recent news items on the Tajik presidential website are a September 18 phone call with Putin and Rahmon’s September 16 meeting with Japarov in Samarkand.
This style of communication trickles down, with Kyrgyz officials at various agencies and levels making statements regarding the border situation and very little being communicated by the Tajik side. This invariably shapes our understanding of the situation.
Four days after conflict flared to life on September 14, the official death toll has risen to more than 100, according to government statements. Kyrgyz authorities reported on September 18 that 59 Kyrgyz citizens had been killed and Tajik authorities have finally begun to release numbers, claiming more that 35 had been killed. Women, children, and civilians, in addition to military personnel, have reportedly been killed. Civilian infrastructure has been destroyed on both sides of the border.
In his September 19 remarks, Japarov expressed condolences to the families of those killed. He urged Kyrgyz to not react to provocative information on the internet, calling for calm. In particular, Japarov asked young people itching to go to the border to be patient. Japarov highlighted both the increase in Kyrgyzstan’s military capabilities and competency and work done to resolve border disputes with Uzbekistan. “To date, the only problems are on the border with the Republic of Tajikistan,” Japarov said, stating that Kyrgyzstan continues to seek “an expeditious resolution of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in a peaceful way.”
Rahmon has published no such remarks yet, though the Tajik Foreign Ministry accused Japarov of spreading “lies” and creating the image of Tajikistan as the “aggressor” — Tajik analysts followed up with the conclusion that Japarov did so for domestic political reasons. The problem, of course, is that the very same can be said about Rahmon: that this conflict is an outgrowth of domestic political motivations, a demonstration of strength, perhaps, before a power transition, or a distraction from the ongoing problems of GBAO.
That after 30 years, various Kyrgyz presidents and Rahmon — who has been Tajik president since 1992 — have not been able to settle the border is a major failing. Over the years, usually after a flare-up in the conflict, there have been many meetings and rounds of negotiations, but the two sides have been unable to reach an agreement on where their border lies and how to engage constructively across it. Instead the conflict has festered, with each flash of conflict, each death along the border, pushing any sort of compromise further and further away. Meanwhile, divisions deepen and harden between Kyrgyz and Tajiks.