Sarah Martin is the 2021 Eurasia Fellow for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is Washington D.C.-based and works in human rights development in Europe and Eurasia. Prior to this, she was a Research Fellow at the Secretariate of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where she covered the first dimension of political-military affairs. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing the April 2021 Conflict Between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the Impotency of Regional International Organizations

Date Originally Written:  July 15, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  August 9, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of someone assessing the value of regional international organizations based on their actions and inactions in relation to the conflicts that occur in their respective regions.

Summary:  Violence between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in April 2021 led to tens of dead, hundreds wounded, and a fractured interstate relationship. Domestic politics headed by an authoritarian in Tajikistan and an ascending authoritarian in Kyrgyzstan exacerbated the situation. International organizations such as the OSCE or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) were designed to respond but fails to do so.

Text:  On April 28, 2021, in an exclave between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a skirmish over the installation of a security camera escalated from throwing stones to employing live ammunition. On the Kyrgyzstan side, approximately 34 people were killed, 132 wounded and more than 800 evacuated, while Tajikistan suffered 15 casualties[1]. On May 1, the countries signed a peace treaty, although, according to political scientist Emil Dzhuraev, it is unlikely relations between the two countries will ever be peaceful[2]. This latest surge of violence ended swiftly and with no intervention from one of the three international organizations to which either country claims membership. This assessment reflects on the conflict itself, and also the weakness of the international organizations that could have made an impact but failed to do so.

Under the Soviet Union, the lines between the Central Asian Republics did not matter, but independence following the end of the Cold War brought out old maps, mandates, and memories, each blurred from time[3]. Such interpretation has left Kyrgyzstan, the smallest of the five Republics, with exclaves of both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan within its southern panhandle. Relations among these ethnic groups and citizenships have been peaceful since the 1990s, though relations have soured in the past decade. Three issues are intensifying relations further — increasingly scarce water; the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, with whom Tajikistan borders; and the volatility of the autocratic leaders of all three countries[4].

Sadyr Japarov was recently elected to Kyrgyzstan’s presidency, following the ouster of the previous president by way of coup[5]. He is the fifth president of independent Kyrgyzstan and the fifth to reach that position through revolt. Although not technically an autocrat, Japarov is well on his way to becoming one[6][7]. Notably, he recently amended the constitution to shift powers from Parliament into his hands, and most of his cabinet is staffed by personal friends[8]. On the other side of the border is Emomali Rahmon, who has been in power since Tajikistan’s gained independence in 1991 and is an autocrat[9]. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, he had designated Tajikistan’s last independent news site as extremist and had its website blocked within the country[10]. During the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, Tajikistan was one of the last countries to admit they had cases of the virus[11]. For both Rahmon and Japarov, a small victorious war in the contested areas would have given them enough points to pursue their political interests. Japarov could use the small war to solidify his new regime; Rahmon to ensure the continuity of his decades-old one.

A flare-up of violence along contentious borders should make for a logical submission to an international organization. After all, conflict management is theoretically a core objective of such a union. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are members to three: the OSCE, the CSTO, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Each organization maintains a unique approach to internationalism. Each organization uniquely failed to respond to this crisis, and each uniquely demonstrated its waning relevance through inaction.

The OSCE is neither a military alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nor a legislative body like the European Union (EU), but rather a forum for its 57 participating States to convene on matters of the military, environment and economics, and human rights[12]. Despite its amorphous nature, the OSCE is still built with human rights as a foundational tenant. In fact, if the OSCE is known for anything these days, it is for its election monitoring missions. The human rights component of the OSCE has long been a source of ire among some of the participating states—and Tajikistan is one of the louder complainants. In 2020 the organization faced a leadership crisis among key chairmanships of the Secretariat, and Tajikistan played a crucial role in instigating that crisis by blocking nominations[13].

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are also represented in the CSTO, a Russian-built NATO equivalent [14][15], and the SCO, a Chinese-established sort-of EU analogue[16]. Both the CSTO and SCO claim to be alternatives to the Western models[17]: strictly economic and political agreements, respectively, without the hypocrisy inherent within a regime that claims to be based on human rights, as the OSCE’s does. Although one might expect to find it in Central Asia, there is not much competition between Russia, China, or their organizations. There is much speculation as to why there are not more hostilities, but it would not be outlandish to posit their détente is due to mutual competitors in the United States and EU.

April’s outbreak of violence between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan demonstrates the impotency of both approaches. Conflict mitigation is supposed to be one of the mandates of the political-military dimension of the OSCE, but it has failed to keep the tenuous peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Trilateral Contact Group has yet to yield sustainable results between Ukraine, Russia and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered the CSTO as a venue of deliberation, but Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan refused, preferring to, and ultimately coming to, an agreement amongst themselves[18]. China provided statements calling for the peaceful resolution of the conflict but offered no role in facilitating peace[19]. The SCO also had little to say; in fact, members of the SCO met in May and the violence was not even mentioned[20].

The violence between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan highlights the clashing of two systems—one that claims it ought to address conflict with human rights as its basis, but ultimately cannot; and another that does not seem particularly interested in trying. Given that none of them, the OSCE, the CSTO or the SCO, were able to provide solutions for a relatively small conflict, they can likely do little in the shadow of larger regional crises, or the modern era’s border-transcending issues: pestilence, war, famine and the climate crisis that will exacerbate all.


[1] Reuters. (2021, May 1). Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan agree ceasefire after border clashes.

[2] Radio Azattyk. (2021, May 7). Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Conflict: How to Reconcile and Prevent It in The Future, Expert Opinions (Russian)

[3] Ayzirek Imanaliyeva. (2021, May 2). Tempers flaring as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan come to deadly blows. Eurasianet.

[4] Aliyev, N. (2021, May 25). Russia’s Power Play in Central Asia. The Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs.

[5] Pikulicka-Wilczewska, A. (2021, January 12). Kyrgyzstan’s Sadyr Japarov: From a prison cell to the presidency. Kyrgyzstan News | Al Jazeera.

[6] Umarov, T. (2021, May 19). Are There Any Winners of the War on the Kyrgyz-Tajik Border? Carnegie Moscow Center.

[7] Radio Azattyk. (2021, May 7). Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Conflict: How to Reconcile and Prevent It in The Future, Expert Opinions (Russian)

[8] Eurasianet. (2021, May 5). Kyrgyzstan: President signs new constitution into law.

[9] RFE/RL. (2021, May 26). Tajik Election Sees Autocratic Leader Rahmon Set to Extend Rule.

[10] Pannier, B. (2020, July 20). How Tajikistan Blocked Term Extensions for Key OSCE Officials. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty.

[11] Eurasianet. (2020, April 20). Tajikistan says it has no COVID-19, attributes new death to swine flu.

[12] Epkenhans, T. (2007). The OSCE’s Dilemma in Central Asia. OSCE Yearbook 2006, 211–222.

[13] Pannier, B. (2020), Tajikistan

[14] Aliyev, N. (2021), Russia

[15] Radio Azattyk. (2021, May 7). Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Conflict

[16] BBC News Кыргыз Кызматы (Kyrgyz Service). (2021, May 1). Чек ара жаңжалыбы же агрессиябы? эл аралык эксперттердин пикири (Border conflict or aggression? Opinion of international experts).

[17] Wolff, S. (2021, April 28). China: A Challenge or an Opportunity for the OSCE? | SHRM. Security and Human Rights Monitor.

[18] BBC News Кыргыз Кызматы (Kyrgyz Service)

[19] (2021, April 30). Китай отреагировал на конфликт на границе Кыргызстана и Таджикистана (China reacted to the conflict on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).

[20] Sheng, Y. (2021, May 12). China, Central Asian countries to strengthen cooperation on Afghan issue, counterterrorism and diversify energy sources. Global Times.