Staunton, July 21 – The demarcation of only 504 of the 976 kilometers of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border has been agreed to by the two sides; but the most serious conflicts involve exclaves, like Tajikistan’s Vorukh, the largest of them, or Tajikistan’s Isfara, regions which belong to one country but which are surrounded by the territory of the other.
In Soviet times, exclaves like that one were not a problem as few devoted much attention to republic borders and people passed from the main part of any republic to the exclave through the territory of another without thinking much about it. But when the countries became independent, the exclaves became isolated and potentially flash points in bilateral relations.
That has been true of Vorukh in particular, and earlier this year, fighting between Tajiks living there and Kyrgyz in the surrounding Kyrgyz territories turned deadly, prompting the two sides to intensify the work of the pre-existing by somnolent bilateral border demarcation commission (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/03/conflict-on-kyrgyz-tajik-border.html).
Tajiks have worried for a long time that in the event of conflict between their country and Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz will close the road to Vorukh, Five years ago, they asked for the establishment of a transportation corridor between Tajikistan proper and Vorukh, a piece of land about 600 meters wide and three kilometers long.
In exchange, Dushanbe was prepared to offer territory of an equivalent amount to Kyrgyzstan anywhere along the border. Such a shift, Viktoriya Panfilova of Moscow’s Nezavisimaya gazeta points out, would have reduced tensions by eliminating a major bone of contention (ng.ru/cis/2019-07-21/5_7627_tadzhikistan.html).
But Bishkek has been unwilling to even consider doing so given how sensitive border changes have been since it adjusted its border with China. According to Kyrgyzstan political analyst Denis Berdakov, the Kyrgyz authorities could agree to changes with Tajikistan only “if the border was completely demilitarized,” an unlikely prospect.
Further complicating the situation but also containing within it the possibility of a larger bargain is that Kyrgyzstan has an enclave inside Tajikistan, Isfara, that is part of its Batken Oblast. If the border between the two countries was redrawn to eliminate both exclaves at one go, the two countries would find it easier to cooperate on many other issues.
But Aleksandr Knyazev, a Moscow specialist on Central Asia, says that in addition to sensitivities about border changes in general, these two exclaves present particular problems because they have become centers for illegal trade in drugs and other contraband and for Islamist groups.
The Moscow expert says these two exclaves promote ethnic nationalism in each country, with people from them playing a major role among nationalist groups in each country and the irritations the exclaves cause keeping their cause alive. (The same is true in the south Caucasus between Armenians and Azerbaijanis concerning Karabakh and Nakhchivan.)
Panfilova says that “one of the directions for the resolution of this problem could be the exchange of the disputed areas or the creation of join free economic zones. But about either the first or the second, it is probably still premature to speak.” The two sides need to find a common language and agree on the maps they will use to demarcate the borders.
Neither has happened, but hopes and fears that they will are likely to be a source of renewed clashes especially whenever the leaders of the two countries meet, regardless of whether they are going to address this problem or not.