Updated: May 7
Some of my most vivid childhood memories concern borders. Grandmother on dad's side lived at a stone's throw distance from Kyrgyzstan, in a small Uzbek village called "Yor qishloq". When visiting her, I was always fascinated with the idea that just on the other side of a small stream, there is a different country, with a different currency, language and even a different time zone. Jump over the unguarded stream at 10, and you travel in time when your feet touch the ground at 11.
Later in life, when Central Asian borders became highly securitized but not necessarily secure, I had an interesting conversation with some of my old buddies in Namangan, Uzbekistan, whose heads were filled with conspiracies about the neighbours. They asked about the Western-sponsored revolutions, about poisoned rivers and much more. Travel between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan was a major challenge. I was living in Bishkek at the time and when visiting Uzbekistan and chatting with people I noticed that they know more about the US or Russia, than about a country a few kilometres away. This lack of mobility, accompanied by a strange demonisation campaign in the media bread an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.
Today, border disputes in Central Asia continue to pose major security and social challenges. New communication realities, where virtually anyone with a smartphone and internet connection can share their opinion and create discourses, turn social media milieux into battlefields. Offline frustrations penetrate the digital domain where they gain new shapes and foci and subsequently re-enter the offline world. These social media affordances are vividly exemplified in the recent border conflicts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
In the report for The Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, we investigated both the lived experiences of border conflicts and online discourses surrounding them. Below, I am providing an extract from the report. You can access it here.
"This report is published as part of the project 'Nationalism and Violence in Central Asia' funded by the United States Institute of Peace.
Fighting erupted on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan from September 14 to September 19, 2022. It was the bloodiest conflict to take place between the two countries in recent history. Both sides used artillery and drones to bombard border villages and Tajik forces shelled the city of Batken in Kyrgyzstan. The conflict left 63 dead on the Kyrgyz side. Officially 41 were killed on the Tajik side. But Radio Ozodi reported that there were 60 casualties based on their own sources. Further, more than 400 people were wounded on both sides and 130,000 displaced inside Kyrgyzstan. Both sides accused each other of having started the conflict.
The Kyrgyz-Tajik border has been a site of sporadic dispute in past decades. Just 642 km of the countries’ 984 km border has been delimited, with disputes over right of access to water, land and infrastructure sparking disagreements among local residents and military personnel. But recent border conflicts in April 2021 and September 2022 have signaled an escalation in scale, with the use of heavy weapons on both sides resulting in mass casualties. Coupled with this, the conflicts coincided with an unprecedented information war fought between the media and citizens in the online sphere.
Rather than examining who or what is responsible for the conflict, this report examines the framing of the border conflict by both sides through an analysis of official statements, perceptions of residents in border areas, and social media posts. We focus particularly on examples of chauvinism and ethno-nationalist tendencies, as well as inciting hatred between Kyrgyz and Tajiks. The report draws from an analysis of social media and official framings, but also fieldwork conducted in Batken in October 2022. The report seeks to highlight the following topics that emerged from the conversations with local stakeholders: trauma lived in armed conflict, uncertainty about the viability of Batken province as a peaceful place in the future, perceptions of state weakness and vulnerability, and the changing nature of the border conflicts. Unfortunately, due to the political situation and security reasons, it was not possible to conduct fieldwork on the Tajik side of the border and present their perspective.
We compare the discourses from the previous major border conflict in April 2021 with September 2022, highlighting how tensions are escalating. For instance, in the Kyrgyz online sphere, there was an increase in the number of artistic illustrations created as a medium for the narration of the events. The use of hashtags to create traceable digital archives of related social media posts also increased. If in 2021 Tajik social media users played a predominantly reactive role to posts generated in the Kyrgyz social media sphere, our analysis finds that in 2022 there was an increase in the volume of posts made by Tajik users, as well as an increase in thematic groups and channels on Facebook and Telegram. The appeal to the common Muslim identity between the two nations that was present in 2021 has been replaced with explicit nativist and racist discourses in 2022. A drastic shift towards inter-racial hostility was observed on both sides. On the Tajik side in particular, we saw numerous prominent individuals frame the conflict along religious lines as a struggle against non-believers. The Tajik side also involved various former civil war era commanders, many of whom are not formally part of the Tajik armed services, who also framed the conflict along these lines.
About the authors:
Rashid Gabdulhakov is an assistant professor at the Research Centre for Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He researches social media in the context of Russia and Central Asia.
Oleg Antonov is a Researcher at Södertörn University. His research focuses on authoritarian governance in Central Asia, in particular Russia and China’s influence in the region.
Erkin Kyzy is a pseudonym for a researcher from Kyrgyzstan."