The outbreak of shooting on January 11 in southern Kyrgyzstan's Batken Province provides just the most recent example of how volatile the problem is.
The violence concerned a 130-square-kilometer fertile area around the village of Vorukh, which is populated by some 32,000 people, the vast majority of them Tajiks. Legally, Vorukh is part of Tajikistan, but due to past redrawing of borders, it exists as an exclave some 20 kilometers inside Kyrgyzstan.
The fertile zones, which lie along rivers and streams, are the only highland areas which can support agriculture and grazing -- the economic mainstays of the region. That makes them tinderboxes for water and land disputes that can pull in not only local populations but also the governments of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, which divide the Ferghana valley among them.
If all sides agreed on exactly where the exclave begins and ends, its existence might pose no difficulties. But because Bishkek and Dushanbe have so far reached no such agreement, Vorukh is a cause of constant tension, with both countries maintaining checkpoints on the road in and out of it.
It is still unknown exactly what caused the Tajik and Kyrgyz security forces to begin shooting at each other January 11 on disputed land in between the village of Vorukh and the Kyrgyz village of Ak-Sai. But the gunfire, which left five Kyrgyz border guards and a policeman plus two Tajik border guards hospitalized, comes as local Tajiks accuse Kyrgyz of trying to grab land for a new road.
Bishkek intends the new road to bypass Vorukh so that Kyrgyz drivers do not have to stop at Tajik checkpoints in the exclave as they travel from one point in Kyrgyzstan to another. But Tajiks in Vorukh say the bypass, which will link the villages of Ak-Sai and Tamdyk, is planned across land that in fact belongs to the exclave, and Dushanbe backs their claim.
Vorukh is just one of the results. Seven other exclaves exist in the Ferghana valley, including another Tajik exclave in Kyrgyzstan, four Uzbek exclaves in Kyrgyzstan, a Tajik exclave in Uzbekistan, and a Kyrgyz exclave in Uzbekistan.