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renewed tajikistan-kyrgyzstan tension pressures the csto

Renewed Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan Tension Pressures the CSTO

Author: Nicholas Castillo

Sep 27, 2023

Image source: President of the Republic of Tajikistan

Despite escalating tensions between their countries, the Presidents of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan met on September 20 on the sidelines of the New York United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). It is, however, unclear if any progress was made on lowering the tenor of recent statements relating to long-standing border disputes, which in 2022 again erupted in violence killing dozens of security force members and civilians. Further complicating these tensions is the fact that, in theory, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are allies, both members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

But the CSTO is under pressure on multiple fronts and the flaws of the six-country alliance are being pushed to the fore. Renewed tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can now be added to conflicts in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh as central security issues that the CSTO has failed to address. Since 2022, a series of pressure points have been exposed within CSTO interstate relations. The largest of these, the war in Ukraine, demonstrated that almost all other CSTO members were unwilling to assist Moscow in its central foreign policy priority. The conflict likewise appears to have distracted Moscow from other security issues within the post-Soviet space. Continued instability within the Karabakh region, for instance, a de jure part of Azerbaijan, called into question Russia’s reliability as a security guarantor due to border flareups in 2020 before the war in Ukraine. Due to the most recent developments surrounding Karabakh, Armenia has withdrawn from CSTO military exercises, refusing to host military exercises, and signaling an interest in Western alignment. Tajik-Kyrgyz tensions add to this, with the additional pressure of being a dispute between two CSTO members. 

Conflicts in Ukraine, Karabakh, and along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border all demonstrate a number of vulnerabilities in the CSTO. Most crucially, the organization relies on Russia’s role as a leader, mediator, and security guarantor, when it is no longer clear whether Russia is willing or able to live up to these roles. This is most apparent concerning Karabakh, but also applies to Kyrgyz-Tajik tensions, where Russia’s absence has been noted by observers. This absence has left a gap for outside actors to increasingly take on more importance in the region. Iran, China, Turkey, and the United States have all boosted their diplomatic, military, and economic roles in Central Asia and the Caucasus as Russia is seen by some as a declining power. Turkey and Iran, for instance, are now primary arms suppliers to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and, therefore, might hold greater sway within those countries than other CSTO members. Members themselves, most notably Russia, are currently pursuing varied foreign policies of little interest to other countries of the group.  

Underscoring the CSTO’s lack of cohesion, rather than resolving regional tension, both Bishkek and Dushanbe have engaged in a local arms race against one another. The two neighbors have built up a stock of new high-tech armaments, with Kyrgyzstan acquiring sought after Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones in 2021. A year later, Iran opened a drone manufacturing plant in Tajikistan, providing access to multi-purpose Ababil-2 drones. Fellow CSTO member Belarus has become an important military supplier to Kyrgyzstan, but not to Tajikistan.

The re-appearance of the controversy surrounding the Kyrgyz-Tajik border began on September 15, when the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Security Committee, Chairman Kamchybek Tashiyev, claimed to have uncovered documented proof of Tajik aggression against Kyrgyzstan. Tashiyev demanded, in no uncertain terms, that Tajikistan give up on territorial claims against its neighbor. The comments were made in response to journalists' questions on the anniversary of border violence between Kyrgyz and Tajik border. “It must be said that an act of aggression was committed against our state last year,” Tashiyev stated. He went on to say, “If our neighbor nation does not give up its territorial claims, then we will advance our own [claims]. We have both the strength and the ability to do this. We have the chance to reclaim lands handed over to Tajikistan dozens, or even hundreds, of years ago.” 

The relevance of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border dispute to the CSTO can be thought of in two ways: First, the potential risk of a full conflict between two member states would seem to demonstrate an organizational weakness within the CSTO if not immediately mediated by Russia or the organization itself.  Second, however, the episode has already demonstrated an increasing irrelevance of the CSTO to the central security issues of member states. The lack of CSTO action, currently and during the 2022 border violence, shows organizational failure or unwillingness to provide basic security for the region. 

The uptick in non-participation in military exercises by CSTO member states in recent years is also telling. Forecasting Armenia’s actions this year, following the 2022 border violence, Kyrgyzstan unilaterally canceled planned CSTO exercises less than a day before their scheduled start, likely in protest of the group's inaction. Non-participation therefore demonstrates a lack of legitimacy and faith in the CSTO. A mutual security organization is only functional if member countries take their commitments seriously, backing up the collective nature of treaties with collective action. 

Despite recent CSTO “Combat Brotherhood” joint exercises, held in Belarus, the confrontation between the two Central Asian states seems to be another indication that the geopolitical environment is raising doubt as to whether the organization can continue in a meaningful form. With Moscow already bogged down in Ukraine, the decline of the CSTO would further call into question Russia’s role as a regional hegemon in Central Asia and the Caucasus and give greater relevance to new alliances and to the agency of regional states themselves.  

The CSTO has never been as significant as its NATO or Warsaw Pact counterparts. It has never had a major or long-term deployment, and no country has expressed interest in joining the block since Uzbekistan withdrew in 2012 after having joined in 2008. But, since the collapse of the USSR, the CSTO managed to maintain security ties and cooperation among its members and had potential to face regional challenges and support regime security. With a variety of conflicts erupting throughout Central Asia and Eastern Europe, however, the CSTO has begun to fade; exposed as a body incapable of or unwilling to manage the largest security issues for its member states. Armenia has already downgraded its participation, and a formal exit might occur in the future. If tensions continue to escalate between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, combined with speculation around Armenia’s future involvement, the CSTO would face a new period of crisis that could fracture the organization or seriously call into question its legitimacy within the eyes of its member countries.

Critics of the CSTO have long noted its lack of military deployment or involvement compared to NATO or the former Warsaw Pact. However, the CSTO does provide some value to its members. Regular military exercises and arms deals are important for post-Soviet ties to be maintained and provide some security training benefits. CSTO members were also barred by treaty from joining other security groups, such as NATO, and incentivized to buy Russian military goods, which considering the current situation in Ukraine, may no longer be available. Alongside other intergovernmental organizations, like the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the CSTO helped cement Russia’s status as security guarantor and regional leader, adding weight to the conception of the post-Soviet space as a functional geopolitical region. Pro-regime CSTO deployments to Kazakhstan in January of 2022 and shared interest in anti-terror drills and preparedness seemed to push back against critics who pointed out the lack of tangible action by the CSTO across its history, but recent conflicts have gone unadressed.

The coming undone of the CSTO would mean a further decline in Moscow’s ability to shape regional affairs. These processes, underway prior to 2022, have already been expedited by developments since the invasion of Ukraine, which has required resources, politically isolated Russia, and to many exposed its military as a paper tiger. With Russia and Russian-backed institutions in retreat, other countries and relationships would gain significance. The decline of the CSTO would be both an effect of, and an additional catalyst for, the increasingly multi-polar nature of the post-Soviet space. This may well be a factor in the Kyrgyz and Tajik Presidents taking the imitative to address their cross-border conflict at UNGA, absent CSTO assistance.


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