Provocative irredentist statements about Tajikistan by a top Kyrgyz official on the first anniversary of deadly border clashes between the two countries has caused alarm in Dushanbe and soured relations.
When asked by journalists on September 15 about the ongoing Kyrgyz-Tajik border talks aimed at ending decades of dispute over their common border, Kyrgyz National Security Committee head Kamchybek Tashiev said Kyrgyz officials had uncovered "historical" documents that suggest parts of Tajikistan used to be Kyrgyz territory.
"If the neighboring country [Tajikistan] does not withdraw its territorial demands [on Kyrgyzstan], we will push [our findings] forward,” said Tashiev, who is also the chairman of the Kyrgyz Commission on the Demarcation and Delimitation of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
“We have the capacity and the opportunities to do so," he said ominously, without providing any details.
Following Tashiev's statement, the Tajik Foreign Ministry summoned Kyrgyz Ambassador to Tajikistan Erlan Abdyldaev for talks and also warned of their concerns over Tashiev’s controversial comments.
"Such comments can seriously damage the current negotiation process on delimitation and demarcation of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border," the Tajik Foreign Ministry said.
The timing of Tashiev's statement, which coincided with the anniversary of last year’s deadly border violence, has raised many questions.
The comments also came as Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov attended the fifth annual meeting of Central Asian leaders held in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on September 14-15. Discussions there mainly focused on regional security and water-related issues.
Notably, the delimitation and demarcation of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border were not on the official agenda, and the topic was not mentioned once in any of the official discussions.
Meanwhile, Japarov's spokesman said that the president had left the Dushanbe summit far earlier than the other Central Asian leaders "due to his tight working agenda." The quick exit was seen as a snub to Tajikistan by many observers.
Japarov has not yet publicly commented on Tashiev's provocative statement, which has sparked controversial reactions within the two countries.
Kyrgyz political analyst Emil Joroev said the border negotiations between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have become contentious lately, with little progress being made.
According to Joroev, after early agreements in marking their shared border, the two countries have reached one of the most-disputed locations and have been unable to find a compromise.
"Tashiev's recent words, tone, manner, and selective arguments [about the border] seem to lack diplomacy,” Joroev said. “But I believe there was a motive behind his action. It didn't come out of nowhere. I think that the day after President Japarov visited Dushanbe and spoke with [Emomali] Rahmon, such a statement emerged due to an undisclosed acute matter [between the two countries]. Unfortunately, such a statement could lead to provocative actions. Given the conflicts of 2021-2022, we are aware of the possibility of a worst-case scenario. In such provocations, attacks, and shootings, the party initiating the attack must bear responsibility," Joroev said.
Tajik political scientist Abdullo Rahnamo noted the unexpected nature of Tashiev's statement and raised concern that it could indicate divisions within the Kyrgyz leadership or major problems in the border-negotiation process.
"Considering the timing, location, content, position, and tone of the statement, there is no doubt that it does not convey a positive message for resolving the border issue, improving relations between the two countries or Central Asia as a whole. It has once again disrupted the atmosphere of trust that had previously existed in bilateral and multilateral relations," Rahnamo said.
Rahnamo also pointed to the need for a thorough examination of Tashiev's statement from both a legal and political perspective, particularly focusing on his assertion about the discovery of "new historical documents."
"Allegedly based on [something] centuries ago when many parts of the territory of Kyrgyzstan were transferred to Tajikistan and [are now being used] to make territorial claims on Tajikistan,” Rahnamo said. “And if such a statement on this issue comes to the table of official bilateral negotiations, it will not only completely change the essence and prospect of resolving border issues between the two countries, but will also lead to a final deadlock in resolving the issue and create a threat to the entire Central Asian region."
Disputed Border Areas
The disputed areas between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are mainly the land surrounding Vorukh, an enclave of Tajik territory within Kyrgyzstan. While Bishkek has declared that the road leading to the enclave, Tort-Kocho, is strictly part of Kyrgyzstan -- as it is internationally recognized -- Dushanbe considers it as its own.
Some experts from Kyrgyzstan have mentioned that Tashiev's statement may be referring to Vorukh on the one hand, and the Jerge-Tal and Murgab districts of Tajikistan on the other.
Historian and archivist Kyias Moldokasymov told RFE/RL that, after the deadly Tajik-Kyrgyz border clashes last year, Moscow announced the existence of historical maps within Kremlin archives that address the disputed border areas and suggested that Russia mediate the dispute using the unseen historical maps.
“I think Tajikistan is demanding that [Kyrgyzstan] hand over all the areas surrounding the Ak-Sai village [on the border in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan], including Vorukh and the road leading to it,” Moldokasymov said.
“During last year's clashes the Tajiks made the same demands, stating that we had rented 275 hectares of land from them [for the road] and it was time to return it. If Tajikistan continues to make similar demands, then we can request Jerge-Tal and Murgab, [which were] added to Tajikistan's territory in 1929 when it joined the Soviet Union," Moldokasymov said.
The border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is approximately 975 kilometers long. The delimitation and demarcation process began in 2002 and, as of 2020, some 519 kilometers had reportedly been defined.
To show the progress made since then, at a meeting last year between Japarov and his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, the sides said some 664 kilometers of the border had been defined. Special commissions from each country continue to negotiate the disputed areas.
But that total was contradicted by Rahmon in January when he said that 63 percent of the border – roughly 614 kilometers -- had been demarcated as work on the remaining border was ongoing.
There have been numerous parts of the often byzantine border lines in Central Asia -- many of them drawn during the Soviet era -- that have been in dispute since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
The situation is particularly complicated near several enclaves and exclaves that exist in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan meet and where tensions have led to clashes between the various residents and border guards.