Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border dispute: might CSTO guarantee regional security?

CSTO meeting e1678900563107
The meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (Credits: CSTO)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 29 Issue 4
Authors: Giuliano Bifolchi & Silvia Boltuc

CSTO Secretary General Imangali Tasmagambetov’s visits to Bishkek and Dushanbe marked the Russian-led military organisations’ attempt to play a prominent role in resolving the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border dispute and, therefore, stabilising the region.

In the last few days, Imangali Tasmagambetov, the Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), visited Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to exchange views on regional security and stability and analyse the current situation of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border dispute.

On March 13th, 2023, in Dushanbe, President of the Republic of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon received the CSTO Secretary General Imangali Tasmagambetov and discussed the tasks facing the organisation today and some topical issues on the regional and international agenda.

The Tajik President emphasised the relevance of building cooperation in the political dimension, expanding the international activities of the CSTO, and increasing the effectiveness of military, military-technical and military-economic cooperation. The parties also stressed the need to counter current threats to regional security, such as terrorism, extremism, radicalisation, cybercrime, drug trafficking and transnational organised crime.

A few days before, on March 10th, 2023, in Bishkek, CSTO Secretary General met with the President of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov. Since the Kyrgyz President highlighted that CSTO is the guarantor of regional security, the Central Asian republic confirmed its plan to conduct military drills “Nerushimoe bratstvo-2023” (Indestructible Brotherhood-2023) on its territory.

Japarov confirmed Bishkek’s interest in enhancing the role and authority of the CSTO because, according to the Kyrgyz President, the organisation might strengthen the development of regional cooperation in different fields to respond to challenges and threats to security promptly.

On March 4th, 2023, the Chief of the International Military Cooperation Department,  Assistant Minister of Defense for International Military Cooperation of Belarus, Valery Revenko, reported on his Twitter Account that the CSTO was ready to propose measures to relieve tension on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

The Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border dispute

Both sides have disputed ownership over various territories since independence in 1991, using different Soviet maps and agreements as the basis for their claims. Conflicts arise at specific points – clashes occur in the Ak-Sai, Kok-Taş, Samarkandyk, Tajik Corku, and Surh regions of the Kyrgyz villages. Kyrgyz presidents and Emomalī Rahmon — who has been Tajik President since 1994 — have been unable to settle this issue.

In September 2022, the border area registered a military escalation when Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards exchanged gunfire even though, at the same time, the presidents of the two countries were attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan.

Both countries blamed each other for starting the conflict. As of September 28th, 2022, according to official data from Kyrgyzstan, 63 Kyrgyz were killed, and 195 people were injured. Furthermore, according to the press service of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Kyrgyzstan, 136,770 people were evacuated to safe areas. On the other hand, the Tajik authorities reported the death of 74 people during the armed conflict on the border with Kyrgyzstan. Much of the conflict centres are around Vorukh, a Tajik exclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, along a mountainous border that remains largely not demarcated.

On September 19th, 2022, the two sides signed a Protocol on stabilising the situation on the border and establishing peace between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. On February 3-9, 2023, in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations met to discuss the border dispute. Consequently, on March 10th, 2023, the two countries held border talks in Dushanbe to find a permanent solution and reach border demarcation, which might satisfy both parties.

Which role might CSTO play in the Kyrgyz-Tajik border dispute and Central Asia’s security?

CSTO Secretary General’s recent visit to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has animated Russian and Central Asian media outlets because most experts interpreted Imangali Tasmagambetov’s meetings with Sadyr Japarov and Emomali Rahmon as the organisation’s attempt and desire to be more influent in the border dispute issue.

In 2022, even though CSTO military intervention in Kazakhstan helped the Kazak government to silence the protests and restore order and stability, the organisation suffered some low blows from the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Kyrgyz-Tajik border disputes which both escalated in September 2022.

Indeed, dissatisfied with the passive response of CSTO, to which Yerevan appealed while hostilities with Azerbaijan were ongoing, the Armenian authorities turned to the EU and the United States. In addition, in October 2022, Armenia refused to participate in the military exercises Rubezh-2022 (Frontier-2022) in Tajikistan. Also, Kyrgyzstan did not participate in the CSTO military exercise due to the military escalation and clashes at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

In the context of the Ukraine conflict and the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West, the Moscow-led military organisation CSTO cannot lose ground in a strategic region like Central Asia. Therefore, a major CSTO’s involvement in the Kyrgyz-Tajik border dispute as in the countries’ defence and security sectors might allow the Russian Federation to cement its presence in the region and counter the other regional and international powers’ attempts to strengthen their cooperation with Central Asian republics.

According to Aleksander Knyazev, a leading researcher at the MGIMO Institute for International Studies of the Russian Foreign Ministry,  Imangali Tasmagambetov discussed with Sadyr Japarov the deployment of the monitoring group and the CSTO peacekeeping contingent in the conflict areas of the border with Tajikistan.

The Russian scholar stated that the Kyrgyz-Tajik border dispute might be resolved only by the complete demilitarisation of the territory. Indeed, with no military forces from both sides, it will avoid further escalations, such as in September 2022. In this scenario, Knyazev believes that only the CSTO might have this function and support the establishment of a demilitarised zone.

Since previously Moscow offered its help to resolve the situation, even though Bishkek and Dushanbe rejected it, the Russian-led military organisation might become the Kremlin’s asset in stabilising the region and promoting Russian interests. Indeed, it is possible that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will not reach a deal on border demarcation, considering that the Central Asian republics have already joined the arms race and the two governments have used this issue to drive domestic political attention.

Although it is difficult to judge whether Tasmagambetov’s mission in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will have positive results for CSTO, since Kyrgyzstan considers the military organisation a vital actor in guaranteeing regional security and stability, there is a manoeuvring space for CSTO’s presence in the country.

In addition, considering that Russia and CSTO represent vital security guarantors for Tajikistan, although Dushanbe has tried to diversify defence partners looking at the United States and China, the Russian-led military organisation can exploit Tajikistan’s counterterrorism and security border needs to promote its agenda regarding the dispute with Kyrgyzstan.

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