Tajikistan: Trouble with the Neighbours
A parade in Bishkek shows off some of Kyrgyzstan’s newly procured equipment. Image: President of Kyrgyzstan
2021 has proven a tricky year for Tajikistan. The country’s southern border has been a worry since neighbouring Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in mid-August. And in the north, the frontier with Kyrgyzstan has been sensitive and effectively closed since an outbreak of cross-border fighting in April. Signs that things might be settling down a little could be premature.
Dealing with Afghanistan
Following the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan and the rapid capitulation of the pro-Western government in Kabul, Tajikistan was by no means the only country to find itself with a Taliban-led neighbour. However, while Uzbekistan, China and others attempted to make the best of things by forging diplomatic connections with the Taliban, the Tajik government in Dushanbe remained strongly critical of the new rulers in Afghanistan. The Tajik President Emomali Rahmon is the only Central Asian leader who has been in power long enough to remember the last time the Taliban ran Afghanistan (1996-2001). Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Tajikistan then, most of them ethnic Tajiks who still form a significant minority in Afghanistan. Rahmon has since positioned himself as a protector of all ethnic-Tajiks.
For a couple of weeks after Kabul fell, it was ethnic-Tajik fighters in the Panjshir Valley who formed the last significant bastion of an anti-Taliban resistance, led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary “Lion of Panjshir.” Dushanbe was vocal in their support. However, unlike his father, Massoud proved unable to hold out against the Taliban, and the valley fell in early September. Massoud reportedly managed to flee to Tajikistanand has maintained calls for continued resistance, but any real counterattack is now widely seen as ‘non-viable,’ despite a few hawkish voices calling for US support.
Tajik women at the in the Afghan-Tajik border market of Ishakashim, October 5, 2013. Image: The Road Provides/Shutterstock
Rahmon’s continued anti-Taliban stance has proven popular with Tajikistan’s populace. Still, it risks antagonizing Kabul, where the Afghan Deputy Prime Minister warned darkly that “anything could happen” if Tajikistan interfered in his country’s internal affairs.
Meanwhile, nervous of possible agitation against its territory, Tajikistan has sent 20,000 troops to the border zone and, from October 18-24, hosted a vast six-day series of military exercises bringing together its own forces with those of Russia and Uzbekistan along the Afghan frontier. Despite all this, cross-border trade between the two countries has not just continued – but grew considerably in September, according to October 27 reports. Tajikistan exports electricity to Afghanistan: the Afghan power company is struggling to pay its bills, but the supply issue remains an additional lever in the relationship between the two neighbours.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan increasingly seems to be joining other Central Asian states in international attempts to work out a concerted political approach to the realities of Taliban-run Afghanistan. Most recently, that has included sending Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Mukhriddin to an October 27 regional meeting in Tehran, though here too, the Tajik line on seeking an inclusive government for Afghanistan continued to carry caveats against the rapid recognition of a government that “came to power using force.”
Tajikistan’s Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin (L) looks at a document as he attends the Second Meeting of Foreign Ministers Afghanistan’s Neighbouring Countries in Tehran, October 27, 2021. Image: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto
Progress With Kyrgyzstan?
Back in April, a little-publicized border dispute that has been bubbling away for 30 years exploded into violence between Tajikistan and its northern neighbour Kyrgyzstan. After clashes had killed around 50 people, a ceasefire was agreed on May 1. However, since then, Kyrgyzstan has been unilaterally restricting cross-border cargo transport and preventing Tajik citizens from entering or leaving the country.
In June, the two countries’ presidents met in apparently cordial circumstances. And in recent months, further work has been done on belatedly delimiting and demarcating the complex frontier. The border, which dates from Soviet times, is complicated by several disconnected exclaves and patchworks of interwoven communities. As of early October, 519km of border detail had been agreed on, but that is still only just over half of the 984km total. Progress is slow, and tricky negotiations still lie ahead when focussing on cartographic disputes dating back to 1924.
The border closures remained in place until October 21, when Kyrgyzstan announced that it would allow Tajik students to return home to their institutions. This, it turns out, only affects around 2000 people and any hopes of a more comprehensive re-opening were dashed two days later in an announcement by Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, who said that, apart from for students, the borders will only open “after the completion of delimitation and demarcation.” At the current rate of around 8km a month, that would be decades away.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is beefing up its border security, purchasing from Dubai a reported US$3.5 million worth of rifles and armoured vehicles, which arrived in Bishkek on October 21. The government has also ordered a new fleet of drones, thought to be weaponized versions similar to those used by Azerbaijan in its recent victory over Armenia in the Second Karabakh War. Japarov stressed that these are purely for defensive purposes, but the purchases are undoubtedly part of the message to Dushanbe that Tajikistan needs to speed up the process of border demarcation or face uncomfortable consequences.
Image: President of Kyrgyzstan
 Demarcating means settling the actual border on the ground while delimiting refers to a higher level process of agreeing the principles upon which demarcation decisions will be made.