Kyrgyzstan: Ambiguous Kyrgyz-Tajik border increases risk of conflict
|Publication Date||2 February 2009|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Kyrgyzstan: Ambiguous Kyrgyz-Tajik border increases risk of conflict, 2 February 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4988579fc.html [accessed 19 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Border issues and demographic trends are stoking tension between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
As rural Kyrgyz migrate to cities and abroad, Tajiks are slowly becoming a majority in some isolated Kyrgyz areas. This has left some Kyrgyz worrying that if this "creeping migration" pattern continues, Kyrgyzstan might face a separatist headache, or a flare-up of inter-ethnic violence.
The capacity for border issues to stoke violence was underscored last November, when Kyrgyz border guards allegedly shot and injured several Tajik schoolchildren gathering firewood in a disputed and ill-defined area of the frontier, the Tajik Asia-Plus news agency reported. Before that, in March of 2008, a group of 150 Tajiks crossed into Kyrgyzstan and attempted to destroy a Kyrgyz dam, according to Kyrgyzstan's 24.kg news agency. When Kyrgyz frontier guards started videotaping the intrusion, the Tajik group allegedly attacked them.
The next potential flashpoint is found in the Leilek District of Batken Oblast, in Kyrgyzstan's extreme southwest. Surrounded by Uzbek and Tajik territory, Leilek is accessible to the rest of Kyrgyzstan only via a road that runs through Tajikistan. Poor and isolated, residents are migrating elsewhere in search of work. Many leave permanently for Bishkek, or strive to work as migrant laborers in Kazakhstan or Russia. They are happy when Tajiks just across the border buy their land, even at rock-bottom prices.
The out-migration of Kyrgyz is due to the region's extreme poverty, says Maksuda Aitieva of Salaam Radio in Batken, the regional capital. "Our people leave these lands seeking opportunities. They want better schools and medical facilities for their children and better living conditions for their families. Fewer and fewer people want to live in these villages. And they sell their land and houses to anybody who offers [money]," she told EurasiaNet.
According to the National Frontier Service of Kyrgyzstan, over 115 families from Tajikistan are now living as illegal aliens in the village of Maksat. The Kyrgyz government is worried by the influx of Tajiks in Maksat and other hamlets in remote areas. In November, Adakhan Madumarov, the secretary of Kyrgyzstan's Security Council, warned of the potential for conflict. He also complained that negotiations to clarify the border have proceeded too "slowly." According to data compiled by the Kyrgyz government-run National Real Assets Registry, only 489 of the overall 972 kilometers of shared frontier have been fixed since discussions began in 2002.
"During negotiation sessions of the border demarcation and delimitation commissions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the sides refer to different maps," Aitieva, the radio journalist, said. Noting the tendency in Kyrgyzstan to blame Tajiks, she added, "[t]he matter is not about [the Tajiks]. The problem is that our government is unable to make decisions to protect the interests of our country."
Administrative efforts to address the issue have failed to curb undesirable practices. In 2006, Batken regional officials decreed that land plots and houses could not be sold to foreigners, but the practice seems to continue to this day. If anything, the trend of Tajik purchases has increased, according to research conducted by a local non-governmental group, For International Tolerance, FIT.
"I have been driving in these areas for the last four years, and I can say many people leave for Russia and Osh or Bishkek," said a bus driver who wished to remain anonymous. "Some people leave these areas forever, and they are replaced by Tajiks who buy their lands and houses."
Local observers point out that a shortage of irrigation water is stoking migratory trends and associated tension. The region is primarily agrarian, making water supplies essential to livelihoods. Before independence, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan shared irrigation systems built by the Soviets, but those irrigation networks are now breaking down. As a result, farmers sharing the antiquated systems suffer significant losses of water, often blaming the other side, and adding to the tension.
Resolving the water issue, along with other sources of social and economic discontent, is crucial, according to some observers. Tension in the Leilek District could soon experience a spike, due to the fact that many would-be labor migrants are now unable to find work and must return to their hometowns. Aitieva and others fear that returning Kyrgyz labor migrants, frustrated over their inability to find opportunity elsewhere, may provoke a clash. "If Batken residents want to claim back lands they abandoned, Tajiks won't give those lands back," she said.