By Daulet Kanagatuly, Inga Sikorskaya, Dina Tokbaeva, Lola Olimova – Central Asia
While recent talks between Central Asian leaders point to a newfound common will to reach agreement on how to resolve linked regional disputes over water and energy, reports that Uzbekistan is blocking rail transport to Tajikistan indicate that relations remain far from smooth.
On March 22, Tajikistan’s foreign ministry handed the Uzbek ambassador a protest note saying large numbers of railway freight trucks were being prevented from crossing the border. The Tajiks alleged that the aim was to prevent materials reaching the Roghun dam, a massive project currently under construction.
Tajikistan believes that completing the Roghun hydropower scheme, which has been stalled since the Nineties but has now resumed, and which will have the world’s highest dam, will alleviate its chronic energy shortages at a stroke.
However, Uzbekistan has raised objections to the project, taking the view that major new dams like Roghun and the Kambarata-1 and -2 plants in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan could reduce water flows down the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to a point where its agricultural economy would be deprived of irrigation.
Tajik foreign ministry spokesman Davlat Nazriev said some 1,000 freight cars bound for his country had been held up over the last two months, and were still inside Uzbekistan.
The deputy head of freight transport at Tajik Railways, Andrei Tronin, told the Fergana.ru news site that the wagon contained cement for the Roghun dam.
In response to the protest note, quoted by the Russian Itar-Tass news agency, the Uzbek foreign ministry said the reasons for the delays were technical, not political, and stemmed from undertakings by Tashkent to facilitate shipments to Afghanistan, which had overloaded the rail network.
Under a ground-breaking decision last year, Uzbekistan agreed to allow NATO to use its territory to bring in cargo for the continuing operations in Afghanistan via the so-called “northern corridor”, since land routes from Pakistan were becoming increasingly hazardous.
The diplomatic row is only the latest manifestation of the fraught relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but its timing is particularly unfortunate given that all five Central Asian states appear more willing than ever to talk about the vexed issues of water and energy.
The disagreement centres on the use of transnational rivers by the countries where they originate, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the states that are located downstream and rely on the water – Uzbekistan and Kazakstan and Turkmenistan.
As Kazak journalist Daur Dosybiev explains, “Uzbekistan and Kazakstan need water for irrigation, while the Tajiks and Kyrgyz view it as a source of electricity. The Tajiks and Kyrgyz store up water and release it downstream in winter to generate electricity.”
Like Uzbekistan, both Kazakstan and Turkmenistan would be affected by any change in the water supply, and they have aligned themselves, albeit cautiously, with the Uzbek demand that before the new dams are completed, they must be the subject of an international study to assess their impact on the environment.
When Kazakstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Tashkent on March 16-17, he backed Uzbekistan’s demand for an impact assessment.
“Kazakstan and Uzbekistan are located downstream on the Syr Darya and Amu Darya and they need guarantees of this kind,” said Nazarbaev.
The Kazak leader said that before visiting Uzbekistan, he held telephone conversations with the Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders, Kurmanbek Bakiev and Imomali Rahmon, both of whom had agreed to such a study.
On March 12, Tajikistan signed an agreement with the World Bank for a survey that will look at the technical, economic, environmental and social impact of the Roghun dam.
Nazarbaev is clearly trying to play a coordinating role in the dispute, since his country generally has better relations with other Central Asian states than Uzbekistan, and wields considerable economic power.
Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov also discussed water issues on a visit to Tajikistan. Commenting on the outcome of the talks on March 18, President Rahmon said that in using the water sources that rise on its territory, Tajikistan would consider not only its own legitimate needs but also “common regional interests”.
At one level, the dispute looks clear-cut – setting two small mountainous states that want more hydroelectricity against three large ones that have oil and gas but are short of irrigation water. Yet although Uzbekistan has tried to recruit Turkmenistan and Kazakstan to its cause, neither has taken such a hard line.
Sanobar Shermatova, a Central Asia expert in Moscow, said Nazarbaev’s comments did not mean he had shifted to unconditional support for the Uzbek position.
For a start, Kazakstan is much less dependent on the major Central Asian rivers than Uzbekistan. Its southern regions do get water from the Syr Darya – which will be affected by the Kambarata schemes in Kyrgyzstan, but a new reservoir inaugurated on March 18 means it will not be so vulnerable to fluctuating water flows. And it has a lot of influence in Kyrgyzstan.
“In general, construction of the Kambarata hydroelectric plants does not alarm Kazakstan,” said Shermatova. “Given that small and impoverished Kyrgyzstan is reliant on its bigger neighbour, the two countries can be expected to reach some kind of agreement.”
Arkady Dubnov, a journalist in Moscow who specialises in Central Asian affairs, agrees that the Kazak leader’s public support for the Uzbek position should not be taken at face value.
He doubts Nazarbaev would really press for an international study if that would jeopardise Kyrgyzstan’s energy plans.
“Kazakstan is not going to take a tough stand on this issue,” he said. “Astana will not go against Bishkek.”
Similarly, Turkmenistan is unlikely to align itself firmly with either side in the dispute. Last year, its president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov backed Uzbekistan’s demand for an international study, and this will colour its relationship with Tajikistan even as the latter seeks to buy gas and electricity supplies from it.
For the moment, the real differences are between Uzbekistan on the one hand and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the other.
As Shermatova pointed out, Uzbekistan’s geographical location and agriculture-intensive economy make it dependent on water coming from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asian department at the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute in Moscow, said the Roghun plant alarms Tashkent more than the Kambarata schemes in Kyrgyzstan, because the sheer size of the dam and reservoir could give Tajikistan considerable leverage in the region.
“Tashkent’s strategy is clear – by demanding an international study, it wants to drag this project out,” he said.
As the United Nations marked World Water Day on March 22, Uzbek and Tajik officials exchanged barbed comments. Uzbekistan’s UN ambassador said the Kyrgyz and Tajik dams were based on outdated plans conceived in the Soviet era. “Moreover, not enough attention is being paid to the negative impact such sites will have on preserving the ecological balance in the region,” he said.
Tajik prime-minister Akil Akilov, who attended the UN meeting, complained that Uzbekistan was holding up freight on the railway and dismissed suggestions that there were other reasons for the delay. “In reality, it is all tied to the issue of water and energy use,” he said.
Recent statements by the Central Asian presidents suggest they are beginning to feel their way towards a solution that would suit everyone. However, acrimonious relations between Uzbekistan and its Tajik and Kyrgyz neighbours – spurred by Tashkent’s concern that its legitimate interests are being ignored – could delay a settlement.
Daulet Kanagatuly is an IWPR-trained reporter in Almaty. Inga Sikorskaya, Dina Tokbaeva and Lola Olimova are IWPR editors.