Saturday, March 20, 2021

Will Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Resolve Border Dispute by Swapping Territories?

Paul Goble

Staunton, March 18 – A year ago, Bishkek and Dushanbe began talking about something that has long been anathema among the post-Soviet states, swapping territories in order to resolve their border dispute (

Those discussions led to a burst of optimism at the time even though they involved only 23 square kilometers, a tiny part of the land in dispute, and to hopes that the sides would finally conclude that the only path forward for them given the intermixture of populations and the existence of enclaves/exclaves on both sides.

Now that Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have taken other steps to resolve their border disputes, which are in fact far fewer and much simpler (, attention to the Kyrgyz-Tajik border has increased and expectations of progress risen.

Yesterday, Viktoriya Panfilova, who covers the former Soviet space for Nezavisimaya gazeta said that Bishkek is working hard to resolve its border disputes with its neighbors and is now prepared to exchange disputed lands with Tajikistan in order to get an agreement lest border conflicts destabilize the new Kyrgyz regime (

Bilateral alks resume this week, but she points out that compared to the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, “the Kyrgyz-Tajik section of the state border is more complicated and often has been the scene of armed conflicts between the local populations and border guards of the two countries. Here, only 504 of 970 kilometers of the common border have been demarcated.”

According to Aleksandr Knyazev, a Moscow specialist on Central Asia, resolving the remaining disputes will be hard because so many issues – including pastureland, water access and nationalisms – are involved and because the area is dominated less by the governments than by organized criminal groups engaged in drugs and arms smuggling.

Knyazev says “the main path for the resolution of territorial problems is the procedure of the exchange of disputed territories,” something the Tajik government has said it is unalterably opposed to. But unless it changes its position, “the issue of disputed territories won’t be resolved” and Bishkek will continue to face problems in the border region and more generally.

“There must be mutual concessions,” and they must come soon, he continues. Bishkek’s new regime has only a limited amount of time to address such issues because the country’s new president recognizes his success depends on their resolution. But Dushanbe can see that too and thus may dig in its heels.

Other Russian analysts agree. Dmitry Orlov, the head of the East-West Analytic Center, says that the Kyrgyz-Tajik talks must not become “a zero-sum game.” Each needs to walk away with something it wants, an outcome that may be hard to reach because “the political future of [Kyrgyzstan’s new president] Sadyr Zhaparov to a large extent depends” on getting an accord.

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