By Paul Goble
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are all involved in festering border disputes with each other, conflicts that so far have been relatively minor in and of themselves, but that threaten to explode and to call into question their ability to cooperate not only generally but against threats from Afghanistan.
Their differences over where the borders should be and how disputes should be resolved thus represent a potentially serious threat to the security of the region and to that of the Russian Federation as well, Aleksandr Shustov, a specialist on the region, argues in today’s issue of “NG-DipKuriyer” (ng.ru/courier/2016-10-17/11_triangle.html).
The most significant border problems in the region, he writes, “are concentrated in the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan triangle,” the three countries who share the Fergana valley. The topography of that region, the ethnically intermixed nature of the population, and the lack of agreements on the border all make this a potential flashpoint.
The situation is made even worse, Shustov says, by the demographic explosion among the titular nationalities, their rural location, and “intensifying competition for land and water,” all factors that have led the three governments both to dig in their heels and to test the resolve of others by the use of border guards to advance their claims.
At present, there are disputed segments on the borders among all three of these countries. The most problematic border is the one between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The two sides have agreed on the delimitation of only 530 of the 978 kilometers of its length. And 76 percent of the 1378 kilometer-long border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has been agreed to.
Shustov points out that “the delimitation of the Tajik-Uzbek border to a significant degree has been completed: Only 105 kilometers of their 1332 kilometer-long border remain in dispute. But there have been no talks about the borders since 2009, and relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe have deteriorated.
There is also the related problems of ethnic enclaves left over from Soviet times. In the Fergana valley, there are eight such enclaves. The majority (four Uzbek and two Tajik) are located in Kyrgyzstan. “The largest Tajik enclave – Vorukh – is part of Tajiksitan’s Sogdian oblast.
“The largest Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyzstan are Shakhimardan and Sokh, the latter of which with an area of 352 square kilometers and a population of 60,000 is “one of the largest in the world.” Complicating the situation is that 99 percent of the residents of the Uzbek enclave are ethnic Tajiks, Shustov points out. There is also a small (four square kilometers) Kyrgyz enclave in Uzbekistan, whose residents are almost exclusively Kyrgyz by ethnicity.
The countries in the region have formal agreements not to use force along the border, but in fact they have and such use of forces has produced casualties. The Kyrgyz-Tajik border has seen so much many cases of the use of force, Shustov says, that it resembles a local combat zone in many places.
Such disputes affect the ability of these countries to cooperate on other matters and even to deal with the common threat emanating from Afghanistan. They also affect Russia which has very different defense relationships with the three. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for example, are members of the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty while Uzbekistan is not.
But Uzbekistan has a cooperation treaty with Russia dating from 2005, although the change of government in Tashkent may lead some to call that into question. Some in Moscow fear that a major conflict on these borders could spark a massive refugee flow into Russia and even exacerbate ethnic tensions there.
Consequently, Shustov says, what may seem to be some minor clashes have the potential to grow rapidly and thus merit close attention.