China and Russia vie for support in Central Asia
Central Asian neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan held talks Friday after an outbreak of border violence left one Tajik citizen dead. This is the first time the leaders of the two countries, squeezed between Russia and China, have visited the contested border region together.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon and his Kyrgyz counterpart Sooronbai Jeenbekov shared a symbolic embrace at the frontier and also held talks with Tajik and Kyrgyz communities, according to press releases from both presidential offices.
Tajikistan's presidency said the talks had focused on "delimiting the state border" and "preventing and resolving border incidents".
Jeenbekov's office called the meeting "historic" and urged the two countries to "impart momentum" to talks over demarcation.
A Tajik citizen was killed after fighting broke out between the two communities on Monday in the Tajik exclave of Vorukh, which is completely surrounded by Kyrgyz territory.
Tajikistan's border service said that a Kyrgyz crowd had thrown stones and used firearms against a Tajik crowd, leading to the fatality and at least seven serious injuries.
The conflict began after Kyrgyz citizens attempted to raise flags inside the exclave, the Tajik border service said.
Violence continued the following day and a key road running through the region was re-opened only on Thursday after being shut down by the clashes.
In March this year at least two people were killed in similar confrontations in the same region.
Flare-ups are common at the border, where large areas remain inadequately demarcated. Competition for scarce land and water also pits ethnic groups against each other.
To accentuate concern surrounding the border issues, the summit also took place in the Vorukh enclave, one of two such areas, the other one being Kayragach.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were both part of the Soviet Union; border disputes worsened when the USSR fell apart in 1991.
The total length of the border is 984 kilometers. Another neighboring country, Uzbekistan – also a former Soviet state - has three enclaves inside Kyrgyzstan.
The messy frontier with enclaves on both sides dates from the early 20th century, when the Bolsheviks took power in Russia.
Communist leader Joseph Stalin employed a policy called “National Territorial Delamination” that was seen as a divide and rule approach to the different nationalities that were incorporated into the Soviet Union.
When local chieftains protested, the result was a compromise resulting in a cartographical nightmare.
Under Moscow’s central rule, latent dissatisfaction was easily suppressed. But people started to speak out after the end of the cold war, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when all these Soviet Republics became independent.
In the beginning of 2016, the Kyrgyz-Tajik commission for delimitation and demarcation of the state border finally came to consensus on almost 520 kilometers of the border, about two thirds of the total.
But at that point the work stalled: the parties rely on their own maps and sources which are frequently contradictory. So far, no solution has been found for the remaining parts of the shared frontier.
Caught between regional superpowers
Meanwhile, both countries lie at a strategic crossroads between Russia and China.
At the end of the Cold War, Moscow incorporated the two countries into the now defunct Commonwealth of Independent States. And in 2014, Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Free Trade Union, Moscow’s answer to the EU. Tajikistan is a candidate member.
In 2001, China asked both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to join the founding members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), then called the Shanghai 5, now expanded to a dozen countries.
SCO members cooperate in the security field, but form increasingly strong economic alliances as well. More recently, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been vying for Chinese investment under Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.