The presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have held one-on-one talks for the second time in the space of a week in an apparent effort to soothe a surge in tensions over border issues.
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, spoke on September 19 in New York on the sidelines of the ongoing UN General Assembly.
A statement issued by Japarov’s office said the issues of delimitation and demarcation of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border were object of special attention. A more cursory press release from Rahmon’s office omitted this detail.
This second meeting, following the one the two men held in Dushanbe on September 14 during a Central Asian presidential consultative meeting, has come on the heels of some diplomatic discord.
Whatever goodwill was fostered at that first exchange was quickly undone by remarks made on September 15 by the head of Kyrgyzstan’s security services, Kamchybek Tashiyev, who demanded in markedly aggressive terms that Tajikistan relinquish its territorial claims to sections of the contested border. He was speaking to reporters on the eve of the first anniversary of a border conflict that claimed dozens of lives.
“Until now, we have tried to resolve this issue peacefully, and we will continue to do so. Our head of state has directed us to resolve issues through negotiations. But at the same time, it must be said that an act of aggression was committed against our state last year. We will not allow such aggression in future,” Tashiyev said.
The chief of the GKNB, the acronym by which the security services are known, went on to state that Kyrgyzstan had unearthed unspecified historical documents that would bolster its claims to land that Tajikistan seeks for itself.
“If our neighbor nation does not give up its territorial claims, then we will advance our own [claims]. We have both the strength and the ability to do this. We have the chance to reclaim lands handed over to Tajikistan dozens, or even hundreds, of years ago,” Tashiyev said.
Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry responded to those remarks by summoning the Kyrgyz ambassador in Dushanbe. The ministry did not mention Tashiyev by name in referring to the “statements of a top government official of Kyrgyzstan,” but it was nevertheless clear that they were the trigger for the ambassador being summoned.
“It was stressed that such comments could cause serious damage to any progress in the negotiation process on the delimitation and demarcation of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border,” the ministry said in its statement on September 16.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan share almost 1,000 kilometers of border. Around one-third of that total has yet to be definitively demarcated – an ambiguous situation that has charged the potential for conflict. While these clashes have over the past few decades tended to be strongly localized and involved mainly local residents and a few errant border troops, the fighting seen in the past two years has been far larger in geographical scope and deadliness. Negotiations on settling this matter have been ongoing since the early 2000s, but largely without success.
To make matters worse, both countries are now engaged in an arms race. The ace up Kyrgyzstan’s sleeve is the fleet of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones it acquired prior to the fighting in September 2022.
Human Rights Watch suggested in a report on suspected war crimes committed during that conflict that an MAM-L laser-guided bomb fired from either a Bayraktar TB-2 drone or another light aircraft operated by Kyrgyz armed forces on September 16 may have claimed the lives of at least 10 civilians in the Tajik village of Ovchi Kalacha.
Tajikistan has likewise made moves to boost its offensive capabilities. In May, President Rahmon oversaw the inauguration of a vehicle assembly plant producing military automobiles.
And Tajikistan is, like Kyrgyzstan, looking to develop a reserve of unmanned aerial vehicles. In May 2022, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Major-General Mohammad Bagheri, traveled to Dushanbe to attend the opening of a facility for the production of Iranian-designed Ababil-2 tactical drones. The unmanned aerial vehicle is described by U.S. military sources as a single-engine, long-range, low-technology drone that can be deployed for “rudimentary surveillance capabilities” and as “a loitering munition.”
Meanwhile, mediators continue to do their work on the side. On September 13, one day before Japarov and Rahmon met in Dushanbe, the governor of Tajikistan’s Sughd region, Rajaboy Ahmadzoda, and the presidential envoy to Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region, Abdikarim Alimbayev, had their own talks in the Tajik town of Isfara on coordinating security along the margins of their two regions of responsibility. This meeting was attended by senior police officers, mayors and other important local representatives from both sides of the border.
Before the talks began, all present reportedly participated in prayers in memory of the people killed in the previous year’s conflict and in hope of peace and prosperity flourishing in both countries.