Fog of war fuels rival social media narratives about Batken conflict
On the evening of April 28, conflict once again erupted on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Tajikistan territorially surrounds Kyrgyzstan’s southernmost section, Batken oblast. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been numerous skirmishes along the border, large swathes of which are disputed and lack demarcation.
This time, the skirmish began at the Soviet-era Golovnoy water distribution center following the installation of security cameras by Tajikistan. Local residents from both countries began throwing stones at each other, and with remarkable rapidity, the situation escalated into armed conflict.
On April 29, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan agreed to a cease fire and to withdraw their respective military forces back to their former deployments. Yet, periodic shooting could still be heard throughout the weekend, and at least one reporter from Kyrgyzstan on the side has claimed that drones from Tajikistan were at one point flying overhead .
As of this morning (Monday, May 3), the situation is tense. A major relief effort for Batken residents impacted by the conflict has been organized by Kyrgyzstan’s grassroots. Meanwhile, there are signs that civilian militias are active in the conflict zone.
Little is known about conditions on the side of Tajikistan, but according to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Tajik Service, possibly 90 have been injured and 15 killed. Much more is known about conditions on the side of Kyrgyzstan: 178 injuries, as well as 34 casualties, including members of security services and a child. An estimated 30,000 civilians have been evacuated from the border. Kyrgyzstan declared the weekend a period of mourning.
The green circle on the map marks Jany-Jer, where residents of the Leilek region were initially evacuated. They have since been re-evacuated to the villages of Margun and Darkhum, as well as to Isfana, Batken City and Sulukta.
The Batken oblast has been hit hard. The villages of Kok-Terek, Kyzyl-Bel, Ak-Sai, Uch-Dobo, Arka, Internationale, Zhashtyk, Borborduk, Kulundu. and especially Maksat have been devastated, with residential houses, gas stations and shops have been destroyed, including by aircraft strikes.
It appears that Tajikistan launched a two-pronged attack, fighting not only in the area of Golovnoy but also firing on residential buildings in Batken’s Leilek region (marked on the screenshot below by a red rectangle). While no casualties have so far been reported, this assault took place 100 kilometers to the west from the water distribution center.
The other area of fighting was the village of Kok-Tash, indicated by the red arrow in the screenshot. It is located right at the point that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet, on the way to and from the latter’s exclave of Vorukh , which has also been a site of conflict in the past. The Golovnoy water distribution center is is near the exclave.
For context, on March 26, the chief of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev, said that his government was prepared to exchange 12,000 hectares of territory in Batken in exchange for Vorukh. The president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, rejected the offer during a trip to the exclave in early April.
Many analysts, including the notable Kyrgyz-American political scientist Erica Marat , feel that Tajikistan’s military actions amount to a de facto annexation of contested border territory.
Social media narratives
To our knowledge, no transcripts of communications either between the two governments, or within the leaderships of either side, have been publicly released. Consequently, it is not known what exactly transpired in the lead-up to this conflict.
Unfortunately, social media narratives blaming either side have already hardened. From the side of Tajikistan, social media is tightly controlled. Nevertheless, there are indirect signs, such as tweets by foreign journalists and bloggers, that there is a sense that both the offer to exchange land for Vorukh and military exercises conducted by Kyrgyzstan in the area were provocative .
From the side of Kyrgyzstan, comments on posts and tweets reveal a widespread and intense sense that Tajikistan was the unprovoked aggressor, and moreover, that it used “hybrid” warfare and committed atrocities. Since May 1, a petition has been building steam on social media in Kyrgyzstan to file an official case against Tajikistan with the International Criminal Court.
Additionally, despite the fact that the Russian Federation has supports the establishment of a bilateral working group between Bishkek and Dushanbe to resolve the border problem, there many social media users believe Moscow quietly supported the assault in order to destabilize the new presidency of Sadyr Japarov. Kyrgyzstan’s new government may indeed have much reason to fear new instability, but according to analyst Asel Doolotkeldieva , arising not from abroad, but from anger at home.
Monday, May 3, 2021