Rahmon Hostile Towards Japarov as Border Conflict Escalates

  • Both Rahmon and Japarov want to gain control over the regions at the border due to their strategic importance  
  • Rahmon wants to take the attention away from the protests in the GBAO region
  • Putin is not as involved as usual since the Ukrainian war

Why is Rahmon at war with Japarov?

Answer: Historic tension between Rahmon and Japarov’s fight over water resources

On September 14, there was an exchange of fire between the Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards. Both President Rahmon of Tajikistan and President Japarov of Kyrgyzstan accused the other of being the first one to open fire. The Tajik side reported that two border guards had been killed and 11 people including five civilians were injured. After what seemed to be a de-escalation, the hostilities continued on the 17th of September, a day after both Rahmon and Japarov had agreed to a ceasefire during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting. The Kyrgyz government reported 62 deaths as well as 136,000 internally displaced persons. Finally, on September 25,  both governments came to a demilitarization agreement on the borderland as the conflict has also flared up earlier this year in January, March, and June. However, despite the ceasefire relations between Rahmon and Japarov have continued to heat up after Rahmon’s security forces released a statement accusing Kyrgyzstan of violating Tajik airspace with drones. 

The tension can be traced back to the breakup of the former Soviet Union and in the last 10 years, more than 150 incidents were recorded, due to the highly contentious resource of land and water. The last conflict dates back to April 28th, 2021, when a group of Tajik citizens was reported installing cameras at the “Golovnoy” water distribution station on the Isfara River between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The station is located close to the border and is contested by both countries. This ordeal angered Kyrgyz villagers causing a dispute which quickly escalated and saw the deaths of 36 Kyrgyz and 19 Tajik citizens. 

What does Rahmon want?

Answer: To distract the attention away from his own internal affairs and conflicts.

One of the reasons why President Emomali Rahmon wants to expand his territory stems from current internal political circumstances. Rahmon has been mentoring his son, Rustam Emomali, so that he takes his place when Rahmon is ready to step down from the presidency. One way Rahmon looks to ensure a smooth transition is to demonstrate power and stability by winning the war. 

Another reason is that Rahmon looks to distract the attention of the Tajiks away from the protests in the eastern Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO).  The protests began last November after a local activist was killed by the Tajik Security Services. Since then, Tajiks citizens have been protesting in the region despite violent repression from the government. It is important for Rahmon to keep control over the large and lightly-populated region, as there are concerns of possible separatism movements. Since the invasion of Kyrgyzstan, the situation in GBAO has been relegated to the shadows and the Tajiks have a common enemy to focus on. 

What does Japarov want?

Answer: To maintain control over key regions and resources

Japarov wants to ensure that none of the border regions are lost to Tajikistan due to their strategic importance. One of the main reasons is that these regions possess water, a high-demand resource and the cause of many past conflicts. Japarov wants to remain in control of this part of the country as waters from the Isfara River irrigate 43,000 hectares of land. Seeing that Kyrgyzstan depends on the well-being of its agricultural sector (accounting for 20% of GDP) these waters are also a key source of Kyrgyz income. However, rising temperatures will surely continue to interrupt the Kyrgyz economy, as it did in 2021 when drought resulted in a 40% loss of rain-fed crop production. For Japarov, Kyrgyzstan’s water vulnerability is not subsiding, so controlling the resources that are available are a must.

In 2021, Japarov also ran on a nationalist platform, so losing territory to his neighbors will affect his political career and credibility among his voters. Furthermore, it is in this nationalist context that Japarov is looking to reduce Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on Russia. This is why Japarov made a deal with China and Uzbekistan to build a new railway connecting China to Europe through Kyrgyzstan and bypassing Russia. There is a need for this railroad to be constructed as it was part of Japarov’s nationalist platform for which he angered Putin. Consequently, it is in Japarov’s interest for the conflict not to escalate if he wants to continue with the construction of the railway, as it is very close to the Tajik border in Uzbekistan. 

What is Japarov doing?

Answer: Giving speeches at the UN and abstaining from Russian Commonwealth meeting

On September 20, Japarov gave a speech in front of the UN’s General Assembly regarding the current border situation, mentioning the objectives of the UN’s Charter and its intention to maintain international peace. He also outlined Kyrgyzstan’s history of regional peacemaking, as the country managed to resolve its border issues with neighbors Kazakhstan and China in 1999 and signed a border agreement with Uzbekistan in 2021. By saying this, Japarov is framing Tajikistan as the one causing the conflict- since Kyrgyzstan has managed to resolve its border disputes with its other neighbors.

The tensions between Moscow and Bishkek increased in October as Putin awarded Rahmon with the Russian Order “For Merit to the Fatherland.” This award was given in exchange for Rahmon’s strengthening of the partnership between Russia and Tajikistan, and “ensuring regional stability and security”. This ceremony did not resonate well with the Kyrgyz and it plays into the notion of the Kremlin “playing favorites”.  Consequently, Japarov did not attend the Russian Commonwealth of Independent States meeting which was also commemorating Putin’s 70th birthday. Additionally, Japarov canceled planned military drills of the Russia-led CSTO (The Collective Security Treaty Organization) military which were supposed to take place in Kyrgyzstan. The reason which was given by the Kyrgyz government is that public opinion was against any military exercises involving the Tajik military in their country. Similarly, Kyrgyzstan refused to participate in a military exercise in Tajikistan.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: None of the countries are winning, but China looks to fill a power vacuum

Both countries are at a stalemate as there is no clear winner and still rests high chances that the conflict sparks again. Russia, which through the CSTO is very involved in issues in Central Asia, has been too distracted with Ukraine to really intervene. For example, Russia sent troops to the Caucasus when there was a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Japarov explained that when the conflict sparked in September, Russia did not intervene as they were “taking care of so many problems of their own.”  This has created a power vacuum in the region which China is trying to fill. 

Given these increasing tensions with the Kremlin, Jarapov is looking for another ally: China. On September 15, Jarapov met with Xi Jinping. According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the meeting only reinforced the fact that China supports Kyrgyzstan’s “in defending national independence, sovereignty and security.” It was also emphasized that given the current events, they would strengthen their partnership by increasing mutual support.

Roxane de Bergevin

Research & Analysis Member