A volatile region

September 25, 2022

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are two of the 15 former Soviet republics that became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are also part of Central Asia that contained five...

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Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are two of the 15 former Soviet republics that became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are also part of Central Asia that contained five Soviet republics in its fold till the fateful days of the early 1990s.

While Russia is fighting a war in Ukraine and Azerbaijan is once again locking horns with Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also find themselves engaged in clashes on their mutual border. As Russia and Armenia have been aggressors in their wars against Ukraine and Azerbaijan respectively, in Central Asia the aggressor appears to be Kyrgyzstan. Before going into the details of the recent clashes, some background appears to be in order. Though most of Central Asia is of Turkic origin called Turkistan, Tajik people are descendants of the Iranian people whose presence in history expanded from northern Afghanistan to Khwarizm.

The same applies to their languages: while the Kyrgyz language has its root in the Turkic branch of languages, the Tajik language or Tajiki is a variety of Persian belonging to the larger family of Indo-European languages. This region of Central Asia converted to Islam in the early 8th century AD after Qutaiba bin Muslim conquered vast areas of Turkistan and brought them under Muslim control. Then both Kyrgyz and Tajik areas fell under the domination of the Mongols too and finally became part of the Khanate of Bukhara in the 16th century.

In the 18th century with the collapse of the Khanate of Bukhara, the Kyrgyz region became part of the Kokand Khanate whereas Tajik areas fell under the Emirate of Bukhara. In the 19th century, the Emirate of Bukhara extended from Dushanbe to Bukhara and mostly contained Persian-speaking areas whereas the earlier Khanate of Bukhara was a much larger entity with a vast Turkic speaking region too. As the Russian empire extended eastward, the areas coming under the Russia control became known as the Russian Turkistan, opposed to the Chinese Turkestan that had Turkic people in Xinjiang under the Chinese empire.

From 1860 to 1880, gradually both the Kyrgyz and Tajik areas fell under the Russian yoke and after the Soviet revolution in 1917 they became part of the Soviet Union. For nearly ten years after the Soviet revolution the Kyrgyz areas had limited autonomy within the Russian Socialist Republic and then in 1936 Kirgizia became Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. The Soviet government included Tajikistan into a new Uzbek republic in 1924 and then in 1929 Tajikistan emerged as the Tajik Socialist Republic; but it lost Samarkand and Bukhara which should have been given to Tajikistan because of their historical affinity.

Under the Soviet socialist rule, just two personalities dominated over the Soviet Kirghizia for nearly 40 years: Iskhak Razzakov (a variant of Is’haq Razzaq) from 1945 to 1961, and Usubaliev (a variant of Yusuf Ali) from 1961 to 1985. In Tajikistan, two outstanding personalities were Bobojon Ghafurov (a variant of Baba Jan Ghafoor) and Jabbor Rasulov (a variant of Jabbar Rasul).

Gafurov was an academic and historian of considerable merit and author of several books published in Russian and Tajik languages. His PhD dissertation from the Academy of Sciences in Moscow in 1941 dealt with the history of the Ismaili sect. ‘History of Tajikistan’ and ‘The Tajiks’ are his best known books even outside Tajikistan. When Tajikistan was part of the Uzbek republic, there was some propaganda to prove that the Tajik people were also of Turkic origin who had forgotten their language. Gafurov in his books conclusively argued that the Tajik were a distinct nationality of Persian origin. From 1946 to 1956 he was also the communist party chief in Tajikistan. Then onwards he served as the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies and editor of ‘Asia and Africa Journal’ in Moscow till his death in 1977.

On the other hand, Jabbor Rasulov was simply a Tajik communist party apparatchik who served as the head of the Tajik communist party from 1961 till his death in 1982. Both Kyrgyz and Tajik communist parties remained loyal to the Soviet Communist Party till 1990 when the process of the Soviet collapse became imminent. After independence, Kyrgyzstan elected Askar Akaev (a variant of Asghar Aga) as president for 15 year till 2005; and then has had a couple of uprisings that overthrew incumbent presidents including the last one in 2021.

Because of the Soviet demarcation of borders that was not entirely in consonance with the desires of the local people, there remained territorial disputes among the former republics. These disputes have triggered violence off and on between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan too. Overall the Kyrgyz side has been volatile and aggressive. This aggression mostly results from prolonged instability in the government of Kyrgyzstan. The president of Tajikistan, Imomali Rehman, has been trying to normalize relations with an aggressive neighbour but the Kyrgyz side seems to be overly ambitious in targeting civilian populations in bordering areas inside Tajikistan.

Most of the deaths have been inside the Tajik borders and the Kyrgyz president – who has spent a considerable time in prison – is refusing to negotiate or restrain his soldiers. Kyrgyzstan is being ruled by a group of people who look more like factions that have turf wars within and outside the country. The Kyrgyz president while attending the 77th session of the UN General Assembly also used his speech to highlight the border dispute which could have been resolved easily between the two neighbours.

Today’s Kyrgyzstan is suffering from widespread corruption and factionalism. Poverty is rampant and the branches of government appear to be paralyzed. Criminal gangs roam around freely and indulge in cross border smuggling and other illegal activities including abductions and killings. In comparison, Tajikistan is much more stable and crime free, enjoying much better relations with countries other than Kyrgyzstan.

Within Kyrgyzstan there is a strong resentment against the present government that was brought to power in a coup-like situation in 2021. It is extremely unpopular internally and has disputes with most of its neighbours. Though Tajikistan has tried to observe various ceasefire agreements, repeated violations from Kyrgyzstan disturbs the peace. As a result, Tajik people living in border areas have suffered a lot and most of them had to leave their homes. The worst affected is the civilian population in Tajikistan that has become displaced because of the repeated attacks from Kyrgyzstan.

According to reports, the Kyrgyz military launches preplanned attacks and uses unauthorized weapons and has broken multiple agreements and promises. Tajikistan has not seen such large-scale military attacks previously on its civilian populations. Videos and pictures from Tajikistan show a horrific tale of death and destruction; even children and women are not being spared. The video of a recent attack on a mosque in the Isfara region of Tajikistan is horrifying and is likely to fan even more extremism and militancy in a region that is already volatile.

Despite all these troubles, Tajikistan sent dozens of truckloads of aid to Pakistan for its flood victims. The road to peace and security can be paved only by mutual cooperation and consideration. But for the time being, the government in Kyrgyzstan does not seem to care.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets NaazirMahmood and can be reached at:


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