Friday, May 21, 2021

Border Conflicts Transform Broader Societies: Lessons from the Kyrgyz-Tajik Clashes

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 18 – The international community is typically so committed to ending the fighting in border clashes in the post-Soviet states that it takes little notice of the way in which those clashes transform the two societies involved as a whole and also change the basis for international mediation.

            Nargiza Murtaliyeva of CABAR.Asia and Marat Mamadzhoyev of IWPR in Tajikistan have surveyed experts about the situation that now presents itself in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after the violent clashes between the two sides (

            The comments of the experts about this case are instructive not only for what has been happening and will likely occur in the future in those two Central Asian countries but also in other parts of the post-Soviet space, including most prominently developments in Armenia and Azerbaijan and efforts at international mediation of the border dispute there.

            First of all, the regional and Russian experts say, officials in both countries not only seek to use the conflict to boost their own political standing relative to others in the short term but see continued reference to the conflict as important to maintaining their position in the longer term and thus keeping the issue alive regardless of the outcome of negotiations.

            Second, and related to this, border conflicts almost inevitably involve a growth in militarization and a focus on security, given that borders are a symbol of statehood in the post-Soviet world. That has the effect of boosting the role of the military and security services at the expense of social needs.

            And third, these experts say, all countries involved in such conflicts immediately begin to engage in a reassessment of their external alliances. The failure of multi-lateral groupings to prevent conflicts leads them to focus both on the possibility of entering into other groupings and more immediately on finding individual sponsors.

            That trend has been exacerbated in the case of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan because the conflict there has coincided with a shift in Moscow’s approach. Up to now, Moscow has preferred to work with these countries through the CIS or the Organization for the Collective Security Treaty. Now, the Russian government prefers bilateral arrangements.

            All of these trends affect the possibility of a resolution of the border disputes themselves and raise broader issues that must be addressed if there isn’t going to be a repetition of conflict. Thus, those who want to help must promote a broader reorientation of these countries and especially work to involve people along the borders and not just central political leaders.

            That will be difficult in this case and others because of the centralization that the political elites in these countries prefer. But if local people are not involved in the talks, any resolution will likely break down with local people acting in ways that will restart the conflict as soon as the central leaders turn to other issues.

            The analysts agree that the outcome of talks about borders necessarily depends upon the political will of the leaderships of the two countries, but they suggest that outside mediation is useful because it can help promote compromise especially in places where there is no agreement at all on common maps.

            They also suggest that multiple international mediators may be more useful than a single one because in situations where there is only one such country represented, one or the other of the two parties is almost certain to conclude that that mediator is in fact on the side of the other country in the dispute. If that happens, talks are likely to collapse.

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