The thin red line between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan


Is there any way to solve the border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan?



Katarzyna Kaczmarska
14 August 2014

In July 2014, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) issued a press release with information about a recent study visit. It saw Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s border experts travel to Estonia, to discover more about 'good practices in border demarcation and delimitation.' What did they learn? 

In July 2014, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) issued a press release with information about a recent study visit. It saw Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s border experts travel to Estonia, to discover more about 'good practices in border demarcation and delimitation.' What did they learn? 

Russian-Estonian border

The Russian-Estonian border treaty is still pending ratification, which gave the Central Asian experts the possibility to familiarise themselves with the practices of border service in these specific circumstances. Russia and Estonia signed a treaty setting out the position of their joint border only recently, in 2014, after more than 20 years of negotiations; and a failed attempt in 2005. The new treaty foresees adjustments to the boundary line including land exchange; and both these options are being discussed with regard to Central Asian borders. Upon signing the pact, Reuters reported Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying, 'I am sure this will ... strengthen the atmosphere of trust and cooperation.' But Russian political analysts remained sceptical (Fyodor Lukyanov, for example, who believes that the signing of the border treaty will do little to improve relations between the two countries). The current crisis in EU-Russia relations is doing nothing to contribute to overcoming decades-long mistrust, either.

This situation provides an excellent example of how important political relations are between states, for borders to function. It also shows how agreeing on a single line dividing two countries may not be enough.

Ferghana Valley


The past two years have been particularly tense on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. Photo: Katarzyna Kaczmarska, all rights reserved

Borders in the Ferghana Valley – a region in Central Asia shared by three states: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – are neither fully delineated nor demarcated. What makes matters worse is that relations between Uzbekistan and its two neighbours are strained. Unexpectedly, however, the past two years have been particularly tense on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border; two states which, at least on a public level, make every effort to show cordial bilateral interactions. But with civilian deaths reported in January 2013; and casualties among border guards in January and July 2014, the border is becoming a source of serious friction. This is a territorial dispute, however much the central authorities would like to avoid labelling it as such, describing it instead as a ‘delimitation question.’ Both states’ officials prefer to praise their cross-border collaboration, despite the fact that it seems to be limited to ceremonial practices, which act as a substitute for meaningful dialogue on the most pressing and controversial issues, especially the scarcity of land and water resources, combined with population growth. The lack of open discussion hampers Kyrgyz-Tajik cooperation on many other bilateral issues, such as trade and infrastructure, the environment, resources, immigration, security, and counter-narcotics. It also poses challenges to potential regional integration initiatives.


The absence of borders did not pose serious challenges following the fall of the Soviet Union but as the states of Central Asia progressed on their nation- and state-building projects, they have also become increasingly sensitive with regard to the territorial aspects of their respective statehoods. For Central Asian states, and most international donors, the ultimate solution to the border problem is delimitation. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan identify delimitation as the main challenge; and the lack thereof is considered to be the main source of tensions between the two countries.

Unfortunately, the border situation has probably reached a point of no return; however poorly delineated and demarcated, borders have become an element of state policy; and they form part of the everyday life of the local populations. The fixation with ‘territoriality’ takes place both at state and regional levels. The clear demarcation of territory, the separation of formerly common water distribution facilities as well as land issues –  arable and cultivated – are seen as the key objectives not only by state authorities, but also by the local inhabitants of the Fergana Valley. 

The border region communities have been growing further apart following a quarter of a century since borders, at least in theory, went up. The complexities of social arrangements in this border region have been vividly and insightfully presented by Madeleine Reeves in her recent book. Economic under-development in the border regions, coupled with nationalistic policies aimed at creating loyalty to the state, add to tensions between regional communities, and stifle indigenous initiatives aimed at preventing periodic land and irrigation disputes. The national and territorial self-awareness of border communities is reflected, for instance, in the approach local inhabitants adopt towards border guards; these officials are often referred to with the pompous epithet, ‘Protectors of the State.’

Borders have become much less an area of opportunity than a space for potential disagreements.

Space for disagreements

Borders have become much less an area of opportunity than a space for potential disagreements. Importantly, the governments of both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remain more interested in border security, understood in national security terms, rather than in cooperation focusing on local communities. Despite the ambitious EU-inspired National Strategy for the Establishment and Introduction of Integrated Border Management System adopted by Kyrgyzstan in March 2012, following years of laborious cooperation with donors, Kyrgyzstan’s security services still look at the border through the prism of the so called ‘Batken events.’ Back in 1999, militants of unspecified background made incursions into Batken, a town in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan constructed something of a national myth around the events, with a monument dedicated to Kyrgyzstani soldiers fighting against militants in central Bishkek; and the Association of Batken Events Participants. As a result of the incursions, as well as in accordance with the old Soviet tradition, the principal obligation of border services is to prevent military intervention. During the most recent skirmishes, they have reported their activity in military terms, claiming they would be 'holding their ground'. 


One of the most controversial issues between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is water resources. Photo: Katarzyna Kaczmarska, all rights reserved

The topic of borders or border security has not been part of an open public debate in any of these states. In cases when it does surface, it is mainly in the context of land exchanges concluded to date (between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan and China; and Tajikistan and China), which all met with strong public dissatisfaction, accusations of treason, and the giving-away or selling of land. The excessively securitised approach to the border and the insufficient discussion of its varied aspects and influences on the local population, make it harder to recognise and handle the pressing socio-economic challenges. The paradox is that while the Soviet infrastructural arrangements based on shared water distribution facilities no longer seem viable, financial hardship and natural resource scarcity make it very difficult to construct the separate infrastructure both states crave.


The states of Central Asia, as well as the donors who wish to support them, find themselves in a double trap.

The engagement of a number of international donors – the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the EU, and the UN Development Programme, in particular – has not changed this peculiar status quo. For several years now, donors have been tackling problems related to various aspects of borders in the Central Asia region, including trade and security; and their interest in that question has grown considerably following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. The EU and the UNDP have undertaken the whole spectrum of activities within the BOMCA programme but the states of Central Asia, as well as the donors who wish to support them, find themselves in a double trap. Given the complex land-resources nexus in the Ferghana Valley borderlands, the ultimate objective of delimitation, remains very difficult to pursue. Moreover, the governments are well aware that land exchanges will meet with grave public dissatisfaction.

If delimitation turns out to be at least possible, it is far from likely to provide a satisfactory answer to such challenges as water scarcity, which is characteristic of both the Kyrgyz and Tajik border regions. 'Border tensions' are underpinned by the socio-economic situation rather than by the absence of clear dividing lines. Moreover, they are not of a political-military nature but rather represent disputes between communities inhabiting the border regions, suffering shortages in natural resources and land. Set against this background, settling these border tensions will require a broadening of the political imagination – a post-delimitation period.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

Get oDR emails A weekly roundup of political and social developments in the post-Soviet space. Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData