A recent skirmish between security forces on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, including against the background of a meeting of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), was a very unpleasant incident. But such things have happened before, since this is about a disputed section of the border.
The entire region – the Fergana Valley – is a "patchwork quilt" of disputed areas that are yet to be demarcated, basically, between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. And, naturally, this is one of the hottest spots in Central Asia.
It is clear that the contradictions between the countries have been deepening for years. First, that's because none of these long-lasting disputes have been settled, while border demarcation negotiations are at an impasse.
Secondly, the water factor plays an important role there. So these altercation are also about water. There are more resources on the territory of Kyrgyzstan, therefor its neighbors depend on this country. Besides, some of these water resources are located in the disputed border areas.
Thirdly, political leaders in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan tend to play their nationalist card and flirt a bit with their citizens' patriotism, which also spurs the parties to conflict, creating a toxic atmosphere that leads to clashes. Today, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon is not doing well addressing the economy issues and the pandemic, and it would be beneficial for him to distract the public from internal issues a little. At the same time, the new president of Kyrgyzstan, Sadir Japarov (snap elections were held in January 2021), let's just say, sometimes also seeks to exploit patriotic sentiments in order to consolidate power.
Russian influence here is decreasing, while the influence of other countries, regional players – Turkey, China, and the United States – is increasing
Fourthly, the factor of external influence must also be taken into account. Russian influence here is decreasing, while that of other countries, regional players – Turkey, China, and the United States – is increasing. The imbalance leads to growing contradictions.
Therefore, it is clear that over time these contradictions will grow if they are not addressed. But will this be done within the framework of the CSTO? If there is no corresponding application to the CSTO, there should be no reaction. Moreover, now the parties (probably not without Russia's participation) have reached a tentative agreement to withdraw their troops, refrain from pulling in reinforcements, and start at least some kind of dialogue.
As of today, the conflict seems to be over. But for Russia this is a wake-up call. First of all, this is a signal that on its periphery, in the former zone of its interests, its influence is fading. Previously, similar conflicts (during the times of the Russian Empire, during the USSR) were extinguished by Russian military presence. Now that there are sovereign states in place, Russian influence is no longer unique or exclusive. Many states exert their influence there, and this will further prevail in the modern multipolar world.
On the other hand, the incident is an opportunity for Russia to strengthen. If Russian authorities are now able to fill the vacuum of influence and propose some kind of initiative or status quo that can smooth out the contradictions and freeze the situation, this could allow it to strengthen, as it happened in the South Caucasus through Karabakh war and agreements with Turkey.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are CSTO members so it's not a good idea for them to go for war.
But no one there is interested in a big war – neither Kyrgyzstan not Tajikistan. What they do need is play their citizens' patriotic feelings, not wage a war. Russia doesn't need it either, even more so against the background of the CSTO meeting – so as not to undermine the organization's credibility. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are CSTO members so it's not a good idea for them to go for war.
In reality, the region is not ready for war because, if the war does break out, it will draw the entire Central Asia. And this isn't what external forces want at all.
Ilia Kusa is an expert on international politics and Middle East with the Ukrainian Institute for the Future analytical center