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Central Asia in Focus: September 20, 2022

KYRGYZSTAN — Kyrgyz volunteers gather outside the government building in Bishkek on Sept. 16, 2022 demanding they be sent to the conflict zone at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. (AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin)

What’s Happening in the Region

The Biggest Problem Along the Kyrgyz-Tajik Border

For a second straight year war broke out along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border on September 16.

Tensions built quickly after troops from the two countries exchanged fire at three places along the border on September 14.

At least two Tajik border guards were killed.

Then on the morning of September 16, mortar rounds landed in or near villages in several places on both sides of the frontier that developed in a few hours into battles using artillery, tanks and other armored vehicles, and military helicopters at a dozen places along the border.

It was worse than the brief war the two countries fought in late April 2021.

And the question is again asked – what is the cause of the problem?

The answer most analysts give is that the problem is caused by parts of the border that are not demarcated.

But marking the border is no longer the biggest problem, the lack of trust and growing hatred between the two countries is.

As of September 18, Kyrgyz authorities said 59 Kyrgyz citizens were killed in the fighting, 140 wounded and nearly some 150,000 residents of border areas had been evacuated.

Tajik Deputy Foreign Minister Sodik Imomi said on September 19 that 41 Tajik citizens were killed.

He said there were people who were severely wounded but Imomi did not provide any figures for wounded or the number of people evacuated from the conflict zone.

In the brief war of late April 2021, 36 Kyrgyz citizens and 19 Tajik citizens were killed and between the two wars, there were a dozen incidents of the two countries’ border guards exchanging fire, resulting in several deaths.

Residents of many of these border areas have previously been evacuated, or fled when shooting erupted, some have had their homes destroyed, and lost livestock.

And then there are the many people in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan who have lost relatives and friends not only in 2021 and 2022, but during the decade previous as the border area became increasingly militarized.

Why It’s Important: In such a situation, where people have been on edge for years, where any movement near disputed areas from a citizen of the other country triggers suspicion and sometimes results in gun battles, work on mapping out the border cannot be done.

Confidence-building measures are needed such as an agreement on reduction of the military forces that have been gradually increased over the last 10 years, and removal of heavy weapons from the border region that serve no other purpose than to inflict damage on their neighboring country.

Nothing But Respect for Kyrgyz Volunteers

When Kyrgyzstan faces a crisis, citizens around the country leap into action.

When the COVID pandemic hit Kyrgyzstan, volunteers organized ad hoc ambulance services, delivered respirators and medications to people’s home, and helped set up call centers.

When unrest broke out in the capital Bishkek after the results of the obviously rigged October 4, 2020 parliamentary elections were announced, people organized groups to protect businesses in areas where law and order had broken down.

The people of Kyrgyzstan have outdone themselves in the hours after the war along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border started on September 16.

Nearly 150,000 people were quickly evacuated from the area near Kyrgyzstan’s border with Tajikistan with only minutes to grab essential items.

People along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border have been forced to flee their homes before. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, most of the evacuees usually sheltered in the city Batken, the largest city in the area and the provincial capital.

Artillery shells or possibly rockets landed in Batken on September 16, so it was unsafe to bring people there and most of those evacuated had to be removed to areas much farther away.

Photos posted on social networks show Kyrgyz people on the side of the road holding signs that read “Uy bar,” loosely translated as “I have a place (for people to stay)”, though it could be literally translated as “There is a home.”

There were many photos and videos posted of volunteers at several locations in Bishkek and Osh collecting goods donated by citizens for people of southern Kyrgyzstan who are affected by the war.

By 11:00 local time on September 18, barely 48 hours after hostilities erupted, some 209 metric tons of humanitarian aid had been delivered to Batken Province.

Why It’s Important: What the volunteers in Kyrgyzstan did could not have been done in the other Central Asian countries where the authoritarian governments do not allow citizens to organize without state supervision.

It’s a lesson in how a country can better deal with crises when its citizens are free to take the initiative and act.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand.

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

Waiting for the announcement of the date of Kazakhstan’s snap presidential election

On September 17, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev signed amendments to the constitution that changed the name of the capital from Nur-Sultan back to Astana and limit a president to one seven-year term in office.

Pundits are predicting the presidential election will be in November, so the announcement of the date should come soon.

Resettling Turkmenistan’s Ethnic Kazakhs

Last summer, nearly 800 ethnic Kazakhs from Turkmenistan departed to take advantage of Kazakhstan’s offer to “Kandas,” ethnic Kazakhs living in other countries, to return to their homeland in Kazakhstan.

But according to a report from RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, many of these Kazakhs from Turkmenistan are being told to move to northeastern regions of Kazakhstan rather than stay in the western Mangystau Province that borders Turkmenistan where they expected they would live.

Fact of the Week

Since 1991, when Kazakhstan started its Kandas, then called Oralman, program, more than one million ethnic Kazakhs have come to Kazakhstan.

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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.