hypotheses in search of corroboration

BICHKEK (TCA) – The recent border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan points to more thawed conflicts and drastic border changes in the Central Asian region, with Russia and China playing their part in the region they consider it their sphere of interest. We republish the following article on the matter, written by Richard Weitz *:

A century ago, Italian author Luigi Pirandello wrote a three-act play titled “Six Figures in Search of an Author”, which explored the difficulty of differentiating illusion from reality. The analyst of the recent border clash between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan faces the same challenge. The event, which saw the most serious fighting between independent Central Asian republics, offers several plausible explanations with divergent political implications.

CONTEXT: At the end of April 2021, fighting broke out along the border between Batken province in Kyrgyzstan and Sughd province in Tajikistan. The immediate dispute arose over the management of the Golovnoy water distribution facility separating what the Kyrgyz call the Ak-suu and the Tajiks call the Isfara river. As in the past, local residents threw stones and used small arms and light weapons. On this occasion, however, the fighting quickly escalated to engage professional military forces. As a result, dozens of people died, hundreds were injured and thousands fled to other places before a ceasefire took effect on May 1.

From one point of view, the fighting broke out due to long unresolved tensions over demarcation and demographics. Local competition for arable land and water has been compounded by artificial borders created by previous Soviet authorities, which complicate the management of cross-border resources. The Fergana Valley – which includes parts of northern Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and eastern Uzbekistan – is particularly teeming with ethnic enclaves, in which nationals of a Central Asian republic are enveloped by the territory of a neighboring country. It should be noted that more than a third of the 972 km long state border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remains to be delimited.

However, the recent fighting contained new and disturbing elements, which suggest a more active role of national leaders in triggering the crisis. For the first time, the parties to the conflict used heavy weapons such as artillery and tanks. This escalation follows the recent escalations of other intra-state conflicts in the former Soviet Union, such as in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The recent clash also began after the government of Kyrgyzstan offered in March to swap parts of the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan for the Tajik territory of Vorukh, an enclave enveloped by the territory of Kyrgyzstan. President Emomali Rahmon immediately dismissed the test balloon and then paid a rare visit to Vorukh. Tajik officials may have viewed the exchange proposal as a threat since President Sadyr Japarov also announced that Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces would hold major military exercises in the region. Additionally, policymakers in Dushanbe may have believed that months of political unrest in Kyrgyzstan would hamper Bishkek’s response. The fighting also took place as the two leaders polished their populist credentials, with Japarov seizing power on an irregular basis and Rahmon reportedly planning to transfer power to his son.

IMPLICATIONS: Russia’s role in the recent conflict is also opaque. As in the crises in Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh last year, the Russian government’s initial response was hesitant and quiet; official statements simply called for an end to the fighting. The minor role of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in these crises was particularly striking given that its members were involved. Although the CSTO has been building a peacekeeping force and conflict management mechanisms for over a decade, Russia has created an ad hoc force to enforce the ceasefire between the Armenia and Azerbaijan. The government of Kyrgyzstan has long sought CSTO mediation over its border dispute with Tajikistan, but Moscow has never supported the initiative, although independent Russian analysts have warned of an imminent increase in fighting and called for to preventive action. The eruption of even more chaos in Moscow’s designated sphere of influence would arguably have reflected Russian poor forethought and intelligence, Russian preoccupation with internal challenges, and the general imperial surge. One analyst bluntly concluded that in neighboring states “Russia’s real influence has been more illusory than real.”

Another explanation for Moscow’s behavior during the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict sees Russian actions as more intentional. Rather than seeing Russia’s response as largely reactive, this interpretation would view the Kremlin as manipulating tensions between its neighbors to gain influence over them, as they each vie for Moscow’s favor and advantages over the countries. third.

Russia has steadily increased its military strength in both countries, citing the threat of terrorists operating from Afghanistan. Now their increased mutual tensions give the two states yet another reason to deepen their defense ties with Russia. Between April 19 and 23, shortly before the border clash between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Russia conducted exceptionally large bilateral exercises with Tajikistan, citing the need to prepare for adverse scenarios in Afghanistan. The fact that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Dushanbe on the same day, April 27, as the Tajik army launched a well-coordinated offensive against several points along its border with Kyrgyzstan certainly raises eyebrows. Meanwhile, the fact that the CSTO and other Moscow-led multinational institutions have played little role in handling these crises may reflect Moscow’s preference for more controllable bilateral means. These mechanisms include sending special envoys, meeting directly with individual national leaders, and exploiting countries’ dependence on Russia’s security and economic ties.

One of the reasons Moscow could exploit the crisis to consolidate its influence in Central Asia is to counter third parties. There are several opponents of Moscow’s aspirations for regional hegemony whose policies may have inadvertently contributed to the recent fighting. Although the United States is ending its troop presence in Afghanistan, the media indicate that the Pentagon may want to gain access to military bases in Central Asia. On April 23, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met his Central Asian counterparts as part of the C5 + 1, while US envoy to Afghanistan Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad paid a high-level visit in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to discuss scenarios related to Afghanistan. . Despite the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, Moscow’s enthusiasm for China’s growing presence among its two Central Asian neighbors also has its limits. Russia’s previously dominant economic position in both countries is threatened by Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other regional integration initiatives. The declining economic role of the United States in the region offers opportunities for China to expand its business activities, while the deteriorating security environment in Afghanistan pushes China to increase its security role to defend its economic interests. and safe along its western border. Whatever the causes, the recent Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict will discourage PRC investment in the two countries. Other challengers of Russia’s regional primacy include Turkey, which has leveraged its partnership with Azerbaijan to project greater influence in Turkish Central Asian countries, and Iran, which recently negotiated a new defense pact with Tajikistan. Likely concerning for Moscow, China has deepened its ties with Iran and Turkey, which, like Central Asia, are important partners of the Beijing BRI.

CONCLUSIONS: Evaluating the relative importance of these explanations is of more than academic interest. Policymakers will want to develop policies. If the recent fighting is the product of unresolved issues dividing the former Soviet republics due to poorly demarcated borders and competition for resources, the parties, with the help of third parties, should redouble local efforts to manage them through national reforms and regional compromises on shared resources and infrastructure. In this regard, the recent incident should give the C5 + 1, the OSCE and other multinational bodies, as well as local NGOs, new opportunities to execute innovative proposals. They and others should also conduct additional research on, for example, the impact of social media in preventing border compromises and turning local disputes into broader interstate conflicts. Significantly, fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan erupted as tensions between the two countries and Uzbekistan eased. Indeed, while Uzbekistan conducted the least cooperative policy towards its neighbors under its previous government, Tashkent has become one of the most collaborative partners in recent years. Not only is this critically important given Uzbekistan’s central location in the heart of Central Asia and its potential border conflicts, but Tashkent has shown how good leadership can mitigate these potential conflicts.

Conversely, if the latest fighting marks a transition to a new era of armed confrontation between Central Asian states, then the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict raises the prospect of more thawed conflicts and drastic border changes. The latter perspective would align with the assumption that Moscow could exploit tensions to advance its influence, directly and vis-à-vis third parties like China. One way to counter this negative impact would be to support proposals to establish mechanisms among Central Asian leaders to manage these border tensions independently of outside powers.

* Dr Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Politico-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute

This article was originally published by the CACI Analyst

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