Recent border clashes killed nearly 100 people from the two neighbouring Central Asian states, signalling their friction could destabilise the entire region.
While leaders of China, Russia and some Central Asian states met in Uzbekistan’s capital Samarkand for the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) ten days ago, intense border clashes broke out between two member-states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, killing at least 94 people of the two warring nations.
Hundreds of cases of injury to people were also reported from both sides until a ceasefire was agreed upon on Friday. Regional experts, however, are not too optimistic about the ceasefire transitioning into a lasting peace.
“It’s interesting that Kyrgyz-Tajik clashes happened when the SCO meeting was on,” says Otabek Omonkulov, an Uzbek academic, whose work focuses on Central Asian politics.
The silence maintained by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the two Central states which have mediated between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan during past clashes, has many experts wondering whether the regional rivalry has crossed the point of de-escalation, Omonkulov tells TRT World.
Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, who are the two former Soviet republics, have recently chosen a careful political line in regard to their relations with Moscow, staying neutral on the Ukraine conflict.
“No one is reining them in,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think-tank, referring to how outsider Eurasian powers have chosen not to intervene in the Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict.
The clashes have forced more than 137,000 Kyrgyz civilians to flee from border areas, which appears to indicate that the Tajiks have been more the aggressive side.
But Tajikistan has accused Kyrgyzstan of provoking the recent fighting.
Pantucci believes Tajikistan’s “aggressive” behaviour might be related to “a general attitude in government” because President Emomali Rahmon, who has led the former Soviet republic since 1994, has recently shown some signs that he might be stepping down soon.
As a result, the ongoing succession process in Dushanbe, which has a lot to do with Rahmon’s legacy, might create some nervousness in the Tajik leadership, according to Pantucci. “They were similarly aggressive in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAR),” says Pantucci, referring to recent tensions between the central Tajik government and local population in the GBAR.
But he also adds that current tensions are not particularly new. “In fact, the clashes we have seen on the border recently really go back to even before the fall of Kabul,” he says. Contentious claims on border regions are the main source of continuing tensions between the two states, he says.
The most recent reason for escalating tensions might be related to reciprocal accusations that one side is blocking the other side to access water sources, Pantucci informs. While it’s difficult to know the real trigger, he believes recent tensions are “the continuation of what has been going on for a year and a bit now”.
The Kyrgyz-Tajik clashes are also a source of headache for Russia, which has appeared to be stuck in its offensive in Ukraine. Moscow has strong influence over both states. “I’m sure they don’t like to see a Kyrgyz-Tajik fight, but they haven’t done anything about it in the past,” says Pantucci.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leading voice in the SCO, which he wants to turn into an alternative alliance against the Western domination, called both sides "take steps to resolve the situation as soon as possible”.
Kamal Alam, a military analyst and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, sees a Western political motivation in recent border clashes between the two Central Asian states, which have close ties with Russia.
“Some say it's connected to the general agitation of Russia inspired by the US to destabilise all of the Russian flank across Central Asia,” Alam tells TRT World. “I think they (the US) don't push them directly. But more of a strategy to unsettle Russia's underbelly,” he adds, referring to Central Asia, a critical region, which has been under Moscow’s influence since the 19th century.