The Global Nature of Border Disputes: Tangled Borders and Uncertain Futures in Central Asia
By Dan Kent
When looking at a map of Central Asia, one attribute immediately stands out: it is a tangled assortment of enclaves, exclaves, and jagged borders. Central Asia, a region of 76 million people living across five nations, can trace these convoluted borders to their long history as Soviet states. During that era, borders were inconsequential, and individuals could move freely, but since their independence in the 1990s, parts of these borders have slowly hardened and militarized. Moreover, disputed segments of these borders have regularly erupted in violence and conflict. This is particularly true where the Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan borders meet — a region known as the Ferghana Valley.
But the most long-standing, violent, and regular border conflict is arguably between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Their on-and-off conflict is emblematic of the dynamics important to the region: ethnic tensions, natural resource conflicts, and issues resulting from post-Soviet history. With the current crisis in Ukraine, recent unrest across Kazakhstan, and other tensions brewing in the region, it is worth examining the state of affairs in this remote and unique part of the world.
The Tajik and Kyrgyz Border
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have had numerous conflicts over their borders since independence. One issue is a set of roads that dip in and out of the borders of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, between different ethnic communities, towards the well-populated Tajik exclave of Voruk. The two governments do not agree on the territory surrounding the road, stemming from their citing of differing Soviet maps as justification. Varying accounts exist as to exactly how much land is disputed. However, news agencies have noted that anywhere from a third to half of the boundary between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is disputed and currently unresolved.
As recently as January 2022, shooting between military forces broke out between the two nations when Tajik security forces blocked a section of the highway. Previous conflicts have been even more destructive, with dozens of deaths, thousands of dollars in private property damages, and thousands of people evacuated. The border issue has even resulted in internal political turmoil for former security officials in Kyrgyzstan. Ethnic tensions between historically more friendly neighbors also seem to have escalated. In some recent fighting, home and business owners reported being looted and their property destroyed, targeted because of their ethnicity. Individuals living in mixed-ethnicity border towns have reported averting their eyes and avoiding those of different ethnicity.
But the winding road and disputed borders are not the only issues. Tensions also stem from the Golovnoi water intake facility, which regulates and pumps water from the nearby river for the Ferghana Valley region. The spark that lit the major flare-up of violence in April 2021 was the installation of a surveillance camera by the Tajiks over said facility, which the Kyrgyz protested, leading to a violent militarized confrontation.
Golovnoi, matching the rest of the local water infrastructure, was built in a time when borders did not matter. The centrally-planned Soviet construction was built to serve the burgeoning region and reflected the status of other canals and infrastructure crisscrossing the porous borders to serve more people and a growing agricultural industry. This setup was largely not a problem until independence, and local water-distribution agreements helped avoid any major conflicts (including the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination and the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, both of which are still active today). But as the border has become more militarized and critical infrastructure has taken on heightened value, this lack of demarcation has become increasingly important. Central Asia has also suffered extreme drought in recent years, meaning available water has only become more scarce and valuable. The lack of water is particularly challenging in the Ferghana Valley, one of Central Asia’s most densely populated areas and a core of agricultural activity for the region. Given the continuing effects of climate change worldwide, it is easy to imagine a scenario where water availability continues to worsen. The region is also plagued by inefficient water management due to aging infrastructure and poor planning, limiting the ability of governments and individuals to respond effectively to decreased accessibility.
After a previous conflict in 2014, the two sides agreed to establish a joint Kyrgyz-Tajik local water management authority. Unfortunately, it has yet to materialize. But solving the water management crisis will be critical to coming to any sustainable long-term solution for the border. Without it, conflicts are likely to continue erupting.
Increasing Relevance in a Volatile World
While high-level security and diplomatic envoys between the two countries have repeatedly announced their good intentions and a mutual resolve to find a solution, progress has been slow. Leaders of both countries have made overtures for their desire for peace but come up short on treaties or agreements. In addition, proposed land swaps have floundered primarily due to local resistance.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are not the only countries in the region with complex boundaries. Not far from Vorukh, Uzbekistan has several exclaves surrounded by Kyrgyzstan’s territory. Yet while there have been tensions and difficulties at times (residents of one exclave, Sokh, claimed in 2019 that Kyrgyzstan was blocking the main road to the rest of Uzbekistan), the two governments appear to have productively cooled tensions. Unfortunately, such progress has been fleeting between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Many eyes have been on Central Asia as countries in the region have walked the line in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As post-Soviet states with deep ties to Russia economically, diplomatically, and militarily, they have been careful to endorse or condemn the invasion, fearing both repercussions from Moscow and that they could be next. Understanding some of the decades-long issues in the region, including territorial disputes, will be of increasing relevance to those seeking to understand the different dynamics that countries in this part of the world face.
Dan Kent is a research and evaluation professional currently working in philanthropy in New York and is a staff writer for the Emerging Voices column.