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Kyrgyzstan -Tajikistan Border Conflict: Central Asian Lethal Knot and Future of Chinese Vision

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DND Thought Center Report

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan agreed on a ceasefire on Friday, April 30, 2021, early morning after leaving several dead and wounded on both sides when armies of both countries used heavy artillery including tanks to impress each other.

One should remember a shootout began after the Tajik side installed surveillance cameras near the water distribution point “Golovnaya”, and both sides accused each other of provocation.

Related Article: Kyrgyz-Tajik border divergence: Conflicts in Central Asia harmful for regional peace

On Thursday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan called for an end to the armed clash on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border and stated that all the issues and existing problems should be resolved only through negotiations and consultations.

Golovnaya Hydropower Plant is a very significant project in Central Asia and Asian Development Bank (ADB) is helping Tajikistan upgrade the Golovnaya Hydropower Plant to increase the supply of renewable energy to national and regional power systems. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in past tried to sell their surplus hydel energy through “Central Asia-South Asia” (CASA-1000). This US-backed project is an idea of 1,300 MW of surplus hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan (300 MW) and Pakistan (1,000 MW).

The Golovnaya Dam is an earth-fill embankment dam on the Vakhsh River in Khatlon oblast of Tajikistan and several irrigation canals come out of this dam while it also works as a hydroelectric dam. The first generator was commissioned in 1962 and the last in 1963.  Waters from this canal serve to irrigate and also generate hydro electrical power at Perepadnaya and Centralnaya Hydroelectric Power Plants located further down. The reservoir has a design storage volume of 96,000,000 m3 (78,000-acre⋅ft) by an estimated 80 percent of this is now silt.

Water has always been an important issue in Central Asian politics and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been debating on disputed water resources since the collapse of the Soviet Union and these disputes are prime concerns for future battles in this landlocked but strategically important region.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are two topwater feeders of the region and the disputed knot of Ferghana Valley in past had been a boiling point for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as all three states converge at Ferghana Valley.

Uzbekistan in past had been against building new dams on Kyrgyz and Tajik resources due to far less water to Uzbekistan while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had a position that they need more dams for hydroelectricity.

Water disputes are the reality of all four important states of Central Asia and usage of water for irrigation border areas had been creating unrest for locals in the Ferghana Valley.

Gulzana Kurmanalieva in her report “KYRGYZSTAN AND TAJIKISTAN: ENDLESS BORDER CONFLICTS” indicates that multiple conflicts among ethnic communities over pasture and water resources continue to exist and a lack of institutional arrangements leads to unequal pasture and water access and use in the border region of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This endangers the peaceful co-existence of different ethnic groups in the region as well as sustainable pasture and water use.

Weak and poor economies (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) are upstream while rich and bigger downstream (Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) and all four of them can benefit each other instead of fighting each other. The major issue is historic wariness among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan and this mistrust is centuries old and was there even before USSR made these states Soviet Republics.

Foreign media reported that armies of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan used the uninterrupted exchange of fire for hours in Kyrgyz – Tajik border area of Kok-Tash and The Guardian reported that more than 800 Kyrgyz residents had to evacuate from several villages.

Tass News agency reported that the health ministry of Kyrgyzstan said that one person died and 45 others were injured in the clashes while a statement released by the Mayor Office of Isfara said that three Tajiks were killed and 31 were injured, including the mayor who received a gunshot wound.

In June 2020, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan border clashes left several people injured on both sides at Chechme and Chashma when an argument about the ownership of a spring located in the area became volatile.

Central Asian borders are disputed since independent states came out after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Central Asian Lethal Knot and future of Chinese vision
Central Asian Lethal Knot and future of Chinese vision

A Report of Crises Group is worth document to understand border issues in the former Soviet Union and today’s independent Central Asian States. Here are important observations of the Report “Central Asia: Border Disputes and Conflict Potential” 

For the past decade Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have all been involved in high stakes negotiations to define their respective borders. Strong-arm politics, economic pressures, shadowy backroom deals, nationalist sentiments, public dissatisfaction and an environment of mutual mistrust have marked this process. The resolution of border issues peacefully and transparently would have a positive impact on regional security, economic cooperation, ethnic relations and efforts to combat drug trafficking and religious extremism. But progress has been slow, and no immediate breakthrough can be seen in an all too often antagonistic process that is defining the new map of Central Asia.

Independence for the Central Asian states reopened a Pandora’s box of border disputes. Many of the current difficulties can be traced directly back to a difficult Soviet legacy. Moscow established administrative borders of its Central Asian republics in the mid-1920s, which followed neither natural geographic boundaries nor strict ethnic lines. Soviet planners often avoided drawing more homogeneous or compact republics for fear they would fuel separatism. Further, given the highly centralised nature of Soviet planning, economic and transportation links were designed to cross republic borders freely. Goods flowed largely unimpeded across these internal borders, and people would notice little more than a plaque or a small police outpost as they moved between republics.

Compounding the current difficulties, the borders were redrawn on numerous occasions, and republics were permitted to secure long-term leases of territory from other republics. In a number of cases, enclaves – isolated islands of territory within another republic – were created.

All these factors combined to create a complex stew of territorial claims and counterclaims once the Central Asian republics became independent states. Borders that were suddenly international quickly took on major significance. Long-standing industrial and transportation links were disrupted. Control of territory meant control of resources and improved strategic positions. Ethnic populations that had long enjoyed access to friends and family just across borders were now isolated and often faced visa requirements and other access difficulties.  Much of the population views these new restrictions with hostility and has felt the disruption in traditional patterns of commerce and society acutely.

Resolving these lingering and often quite substantial border disputes has become critical. Regional relations have often been uneasy for a variety of reasons, and tensions over borders have only made cooperation in other areas, such as trade, more daunting. At the same time, border disputes have also become important domestic political issues. Concessions made in border negotiations can be rich fodder for political oppositions (in those Central Asian countries where opposition groups are allowed to operate), and this has served to further constrain the latitude of governments to compromise.

There is a dire need to resolve and unknot lthe ethal Knot fixed among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan because this knot hampering the common future of Central Asia because this knot is a promising hot spot for any future conflicts and unrest in strategically important Central Asia.

Trade and tourism in Central Asia are also less than their potentials because of these border conflicts and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) needs also a peaceful and smooth region for its future expansion. Since this area is very important for Chinese future trade expansion therefore interest and involvement of international players in the future to keep this region unstable cannot be ruled out.

Central Desk
Central News Desk.

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