By Yulia Goryaynova, Galim Faskhutdinov and Saule Mukhametrakhimova
Just when relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan seemed to be at breaking-point, both countries took a step back and signed a new energy deal.
Uzbekistan cut supplies of natural gas to its neighbour on April 1, citing a need to divert exports to China, with which it is linked by pipeline. This led to Tajik allegations of an Uzbek “economic blockade”.
It was far from the first time the two governments had clashed, and experts noted that the rapid escalation of the dispute reflected a deep-seated reluctance on both sides to talk to – rather than at – one another.
The ending of gas supplies dealt a heavy blow to households and businesses in Tajikistan, especially to big concerns like the Tursunzoda aluminium plant, a major export earner, and the state-run cement plant.
Many commentators, especially in Tajikistan, saw the move as part of a broad campaign by Tashkent to exert political and economic pressure on the country.
Dushanbe hit back with a strongly-worded statement from Prime Minister Akil Akilov accusing Uzbekistan of using “economic, transport, communication and other leverage” to press home its demands. These “unfriendly” actions, it said, included blocking rail freight traffic to southern Tajikistan, using environmental concern to campaign against the Tursunzade plant, and refusing requests to allow electricity supplies from Turkmenistan to cross Uzbek territory.
This “economic blockade”, the statement said, was designed to destabilise Tajikistan.
The statement was published on April 3 on the website of Tajikistan’s embassy in Moscow, and later removed. The fact that it was published there suggested that its main aim was to elicit Russian sympathy and support.
The central irritant in Uzbek-Tajik relations at the moment is undoubtedly the Roghun hydroelectric project. This giant dam and reservoir scheme has undergone sporadic construction followed by delays over many years. More recently, the Tajik authorities have invested in serious work to complete it. Once the power plant is operating, the hope is that it will solve Tajikistan’s chronic electricity shortages at a stroke.
Tashkent says the dam – which sits on a major tributary of the Amu Darya river – will deprive it of irrigation waters in the spring and summer growing seasons, and also presents a real risk of massive flooding as it is located in a seismically active mountain region.
Tashkent-based analyst Kamron Aliev says it is “not entirely accurate” to argue that Uzbekistan is simply blocking the Roghun project. The real issue, he argues, is that “Uzbekistan wants guarantees that the water will flow to it. How is this to be resolved? How will Uzbekistan be insured against the eventuality that the dam bursts?”
Uzbekistan’s formal response to the Tajik complaints came in a statement from Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev dismissing the allegations. Mirziyoev said the reason gas supplies ended was that Uzbekistan had fulfilled its supply commitments for January-March 2012, and the contract had expired. Any dispute was between the two national gas companies, not their respective governments, he said.
The Uzbek prime minister rejected claims that his country was blocking trains heading for southern Tajikistan, saying that traffic on the route had suffered disruptions since an explosion last November. (See Uzbek Rail Blast Sparks Terror Fears.)
On April 12, Uzbek and Tajik officials signed a new gas contract, and supplies resumed four days later.
Their ability to come to terms so quickly raised questions about why the matter was not dealt with before it reached crisis-point.
“The leaders of both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan need to understand that they have to reach agreement, and that they have to show the political will to do so,” Aliev said. “At the moment, that political will is not in evidence. I believe this stems from international politics; there are bigger players and higher political stakes here. Uzbekistan, for example, is unhappy that Russia has military bases in Tajikistan.”
The mistrust between the two states is so enduring that a dispute about a particular issue – in this case gas – soon broadens into a much broader row about a whole range of issues.
In the weeks before the gas was shut off, Uzbek troop movements were reported close to Tajikistan’s northern borders. This apparent demonstration of military force caused consternation in Tajikistan, especially in the north, where political leaders issued an appeal for dialogue.
Some commentators in Tajikistan say the relationship with their powerful neighbour will never be equal as long as Uzbekistan controls their country’s fuel supply and most of its overland routes to the outside world.
Engaging Iranian support is seen as one way out, although this is a long-term prospect and greatly depends on what happens in Afghanistan, through which any fuel supplies or road traffic would have to travel.
According to Dushanbe-based analyst, Rashid Abdullo, “By building hydroelectric plants, holding talks on a gas pipeline from Iran, and diversifying its transport links, Tajikistan is preparing the ground to engage its partner [Uzbekistan] in dialogue as an equal partner.”
The prolonged frost in the Tajik-Uzbek relationship at government level has also affected the general mood in the two societies, analysts say.
Muhiddin Kabiri, head of the opposition Islamic Rebirth Party in Tajikistan, worries that the debate is increasingly dominated by “pseudo-patriots”, by which he means politicians and public figures who portray Uzbekistan as the enemy.
Tajikistan has a substantial Uzbek minority and Uzbekistan is home to many Tajiks, and both cultures have a lot in common. Despite these ties, the media, civil society groups, political parties and religious leaders and ordinary people have grown wary of establishing contacts with counterparts across the border for fear of being branded as traitors.
Viktor Kim, head of the Alliance of Ethnic Minorities in Tajikistan, says the atmosphere of suspicion has led to ethnic Uzbeks being sidelined from public roles.
“The Uzbeks in Tajikistan used to hold significant positions in the economic and political spheres, but over the last decade or so they have virtually disappeared from politics, and have only a low-level presence in the economy,” he said.
Eshankul, a builder in Tashkent, said he feared that high-level tensions would translate into further obstacles for the many people who have relatives on either side of the border
“My sister and her family live in Leninabad [Khujand, northern Tajikistan]. We haven’t seen each other for five years now,” he said. “She hasn’t been able to get a visa since 2006. Two years ago, I did get a Tajik visa, but the Tajik guards at the border still wouldn’t let me cross.”
(For a historian’s view of the roots of this tense relationship, see Repairing Broken Tajik-Uzbek Relationship.)
Yulia Goryaynova is an IWPR editor based in Bishkek, covering Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Galim Faskhutdinov is an IWPR-trained journalist in Dushanbe. Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London. This article was published at IWPR’s RCA Issue 675.