CABAR.asia: Will there be a new era in Tajik-Uzbek relations?
What issues exist between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan? Which of them are real, slightly exaggerated, or overtly fictitious? Whether the two similarly minded leaders can or are even willing to resolve problems between the two nations is discussed in this special CABAR.asia article.
Since late last year, in Central Asia there has been a trend towards a marked improvement in relations between states, in part due to events in Uzbekistan. In an effort to garner the support of the masses before the presidential election, then acting President Shavkat Mirziyaev demonstrated the desire to considerably soften the country’s stance towards its neighbors, especially with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Uzbekistani representative delegation visited the neighboring republics, and, for the first time in many years, fairly willing parties had the opportunity to discuss pressing problems such as disputed borders and the visa regime.
After officially assuming the presidency, Shavkat Mirziyaev slowed the pace of Uzbekistan’s thaw. Nevertheless, the change in leadership is taking the second most closed country in the region (after neutral Turkmenistan) away from personal competition with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, which was a hallmark of the previous president. This makes it possible to begin the process of rapprochement for these regional states without moderation from external entities.
What do we have?
Objectively speaking, the intractable problems between Tashkent and Dushanbe are greater than constructive factors. The conflicts between the states really do exist. However, along with the real issues inherent in Tajik-Uzbek relations is the characteristic presence of myths. These are actively ascribed to Central Asia by outside players and are designed under the notion of “divide and rule”, which has gradually but firmly taken root. As a consequence, the almost mythical problem of competition for leadership of the region became real. According to Tajik expert Parviz Mullojanov, “the basic and long-term problem of Tajik-Uzbek relations is essentially as follows: whether Dushanbe will accept Tashkent’s claims to leadership and dominance in bilateral relations”. But, in fact, this problem of competition for leadership is largely far-fetched and is associated with the subjective factor. Simply it is the personal desire of the country’s leaders to not yield to their neighbor.
Today the situation is changing, and the new leader of Uzbekistan does not have a ideological goal to restrain Tajikistan by any means necessary. Prominent Uzbek analyst Rafael Sattorov noted in an interview with the author that, “Shavkat Mirziyaev is different from Islam Karimov in that he does not place maximalist objectives in the international arena such as zero-sum games”. Moreover, the Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan recently outlined the neighboring Central Asian republics as a foreign policy top priority. Therefore, the problem of classifying Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbor as an “ideological struggle” seems to gradually come to naught.
Countries’ positions on hydropower
Built in Soviet times, the unified energy system (UESCA) involved close cooperation between the region’s countries. From 1st December 2009, Tashkent, rightly referring to its ineffectiveness, pulled out of the “electricity ring”, thus destroying the system providing power to four countries in the region, as Turkmenistan had left earlier in 2003. Some countries have managed to establish and build a new system providing power to their cities. Uzbekistan is not among them. They have not managed to achieve 100% annual electrical coverage for their citizens. The same goes for Tajikistan.
Tajik leaders saw the solution in the construction of a giant hydroelectric power station, Rogun. Today, after much debate and discussion, Tajikistan is actually beginning construction of the hydroelectric power station designed during the Soviet era, which according to plans was to provide the necessary amount of energy for Tajikistan, as well as for exporting energy abroad. However, Tajik-Uzbek parties have not reached an agreement concerning water use.
Tashkent believes that construction of the giant hydropower plant in Tajikistan needs further elaboration in terms of their security. At the expert level, specialists are stressing the inadvisability of constructing Rogun. Sattorov notes that,
“There are three mythical Central Asia projects: TAPI, CASA1000, and Rogun. Unfortunately, the Tajik authorities consider Rogun not only as an infrastructure project but as a political tool as well. Uzbekistan’s main message is that upstream countries should take into account downstream ones and that large building projects designed during the Soviet era should be reviewed. Uzbekistan is offering to move away from megalomania and switch to the construction of small and medium hydropower plants, which meet the needs of their neighbors”.
However, Dushanbe claims that the construction of the hydropower plant will not affect the quantity and quality of water of transboundary rivers.
In the long-term dispute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, one thing is clear. The construction of Rogun is turning into a question of national prestige, and the Uzbek and Tajik sides have painted themselves into a corner. This is despite the fact that international experts have noted that the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power station, with the adjustment of its scope, would effectively restore a mini version of the UESCA. To do this, analysts have offered ready-made plans. Moreover, most experts believe that the problem of Rogun is only political in context and can only be solved by establishing a political dialogue at the highest level.
According to Tajik expert A. Mamadazimov,
“In the near future, Tajikistan will also have a good opportunity to convey to Tashkent the important construction details of Rogun, which are that the construction will not block the Vakhsh River but only alter its course by sending it through a bypass tunnel. This would be a major signal from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan and this will mean that we are ready to cooperate. In this vein, we can expect a thaw in Tajik-Uzbek relations “.
Farhod Aminzhonov, an Uzbek energy expert, stated in an interview with the author that, “stable, neighborly relations can be expected under the condition that the two countries reach a relative symmetry of interdependence. This being a condition in which both countries either mutually benefit or suffer. Talking about such a relationship is too early though. Implementing joint regional projects, i.e. the Uzbek side actively participating in the implementation of large hydropower projects in Tajikistan, is one of the ways to achieve such interdependence”.
Meanwhile, judging by Tashkent’s reaction, the actual start of Rogun’s construction shows that the parties have already reached certain agreements. The main thing now is whether the two countries’ leaders have enough political will to put the peoples’ interests above their own personal ambition and are able to agree on the most significant projects. However, this task is extremely difficult. One cannot ignore that there are external forces not interested in the fact that Tashkent and Dushanbe agreed on hydropower projects. According to political scientist Khairullo Mirsaidov, “the impression is that someone is clearly not satisfied with the rapprochement between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and the decision on Rogun. And today, when there is a new man at Uzbekistan’s helm, who, as we have seen, seeks to establish and strengthen friendly relations with its neighbors, something is artificially egging on the dispute and trying to pit the two fraternal peoples against each other”.
While the sides cannot reach an agreement, thousands of people live without electricity in the 21st century. According to eyewitnesses in many regions of Uzbekistan and in some regions of Tajikistan, the authorities have implemented rolling blackouts. The electricity supply situation in Samarkand is getting worse each year. According to Ferghana News, “some areas of Uzbekistan began to resemble war zones where there is no electricity for days”.
The visa regime between the two countries was introduced 14 years ago at Uzbekistan’s behest. Then, just like now, the Uzbek authorities have justified this decision based on the threat of radical elements from Afghanistan penetrating its territory via Tajikistan. Of course, the Tajik authorities have also introduced their own visa system in response. For decades, people on both sides of the border have been affected by complex procedures for obtaining permission to cross. The reality is that only 2 of 18 checkpoints are working today.
Tajik expert Negmatullo Mirsaidov posits that, “one of the most effective steps to establish relations with Tajikistan could be a change in the border crossing procedures, i.e. at least bringing them in line with the visa regime, open more checkpoints, and allow the population in border areas to move across freely”. Fortunately for the people of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the question of relaxing the registration code is now on the agenda of bilateral talks at the highest level. In the near future we can expect a significant breakthrough in this direction.
Has the blockade ended?
Observers have noticed a transport blockade policy pursued by the Uzbek authorities towards Tajikistan. Uzbekistan is bordered by the problem of Afghanistan in the south but has satisfactory neighbors in all other areas of the country. Tajikistan, however, cannot be so boastful. The country also borders Afghanistan and can only access neighboring countries (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China) through mountain passes. In this situation, Uzbekistan is almost the only country through which Tajikistan can access other regions. The Uzbek authorities, which quite successfully blocked road and rail corridors leading from Tajikistan, pressed this advantage.
Now it seems there has been progress concerning this matter. For the first time the countries have agreed to establish direct air flights. At an interdepartmental commission meeting, both sides signed the protocol on the resumption of air flights between the two countries’ capitals beginning in 2017.
In addition, in mid-January Tajikistan’s railway department announced the possibility of laying a railway line from Tajikistan to Russia via Uzbekistan. Further details were not given. However, the very news of the willingness of the Uzbek side to discuss transport projects with Tajikistan gives reason to believe that the parties have come to an agreement and are breaking the so-called transport blockade. Another thing is that the Tajiks have expressed dissatisfaction with Turkmenistan. As it is known, while the roads through Uzbekistan were closed Dushanbe was forced to use routes through Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
It is logical that the confrontation or competition between the two countries at the present stage spills over into the information space. Here, according to most observers, the Uzbeks are more successful in pushing their agenda by using both internal and external resources. Tajik expert Karimboi Komilov recognized that such portals as jahonnews.uz and uzdaily.uz successfully serve as dispensers of Tashkent’s information policy and have the mission of forming incorrect observations concerning Tajik projects, particularly in the field of hydropower. The author also notes that, “Tajikistan objectively lacks similar powerful information portals as well as foreign language print materials (Russian, English, etc.)”.
The analysis shows that despite the closeness, the Uzbek government strongly supports its information portals to ensure that they promote the country’s interests in the world. Experts are rarely allowed to leave the country and, in general, the Uzbek authorities seek to use international platforms to promote their ideas, in this case by blocking Tajik initiatives.
In the field of information policy, Tajikistan is clearly losing to Uzbekistan. Tajik state propaganda on national media comes close to and may even be stronger than that in Uzbekistan. But when it comes to promoting the ideas of Tajikistan on the international stage, the Tajik media seems to fade against the background when compared to neighboring countries. The Tajik authorities do not practically make use of international platforms. Tajik expert Nuriddin Karshiboev claims that instead of supporting a strong media, the authorities, on the contrary, smother it. So more or less independent and opposition media are being closed. He states that, “over the course of the year  the country has closed four independent media outlets, Evening Dushanbe, Dam, Nigoh, and Tojnews, while several others are on the verge of ceasing publication”.
It is recognized that external players are actively involved in escalating the information dispute between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan by periodically publishing materials on the Uzbek-Tajik relations. Many editors regularly provide their platforms for experts to opine on but this raises one question. How objective are the experts themselves?
The opinions and estimates of competent experts from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan here are to give an approximate picture of the reality of Uzbek-Tajik relations. To confirm or refute those expressed in the article, the author interviewed several experts from the two neighbors. It is necessary to mention that in general, the analysts’ opinions could be described as skeptical, which are likely to be associated with long-term empty expectations of both countries. Naturally, the opinions of Uzbek and Tajik experts are sharply divided on the question of the construction of “that” power plant, but the prospects of cooperation between the two countries in other areas has experts showing a fairly uncommon trait, optimism.
One of the most authoritative experts on Uzbekistan, Bakhtiyor Ergashev, recognized that the prospects of relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the medium term would depend on the solution of water and energy issues, which have serious conflict potential. In an author interview, he expressed that, “the project to build the Rogun hydroelectric power station, which is strongly promoted by the Tajik leadership, is the most painful in relations between the two countries though there are some positive changes in this regard yet. That means that serious progress in the trajectory of bilateral relations is difficult to predict”.
Tajik experts interviewed by the author chose not to overemphasize the issue. So, for example, one of the most influential Tajik experts, deputy director of Tajikistan’s Strategic Research Center (SRC), Saifullo Safarov, noted in his interview that, “Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are the closest neighbors in that their people have a common mentality, history, religion, cuisine, art, etc. But each of us, thanks to independence, already has their own idea concerning pathways of development. Our interest is in something the same but different. In general, we started to develop the relationship in positive ways after the departure of Karimov”.
Tajik expert Zafar Abdullayev also noted the appearance of good opportunities to address pressing problems between the neighbors but that the “full restoration of relations will be discussed after the delimitation of the border and its subsequent demining”.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The head of SRC, Khudoiberdi Kholiknazarov, said during a news conference recently that, “now the level of relations and the work of intergovernmental commissions are very positive. Among the successful outcomes of warming relations, he described the signing of the transport agreement that in the near future will restore air links between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and the work of the intergovernmental commissions, which are focused on simplifying border crossing procedures for citizens”.
There is one unifying factor. Dushanbe and Tashkent, unlike Astana and Bishkek, have not joined the Eurasian Economic Union. This makes it possible to intensify bilateral trade and economic relations in general. The foreign policy orientations for both countries are largely similar.
With almost 20 years of strained relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, neither Dushanbe nor Tashkent has won anything. On the contrary, competition between neighbors and a desire to restrain each other’s development have slowed down the economic growth of these countries. As a result, the Tajik-Uzbek relations to date are associated with the zero-sum game, lose-lose.
It was obvious that for many years a kind of “cold war” existed. The state machinery, especially the foreign ministries and economic departments, and even the expert community were held hostage by the tactical fight with their neighbor. This was confirmed by the interviews. However, in spite of a deadlock over the previous years, the two parties may start searching for consolidated solutions that are aimed at not satisfying the ambitions of their leaders but resolving the pressing economic and social problems of Tajikistani and Uzbekistani citizens.
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 Ferghana News. Звёзды ярче фонарей: Жители Самарканда сутками живут без электричества [The stars are brighter than lamps. Samarkand residents go without electricity for days.]. January 23, 2017. http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9242.
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 Komilov, Karimboi. “Tajik-Uzbek Conflict on the Webpages of Regional News Agencies.” Scientific Notes: Khujand State University 42, no. 1 (2015): 130–33. http://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/tadzhiksko-uzbekskiy-konflikt-na-web-stranitsah-regionalnyh-informatsionnyh-agentstv.
 Karshiboev, Nuriddin. “A Forbidding Time for Tajikistan’s Independent Press.” CABAR.asia, February 2, 2017. http://cabar.asia/en/nuriddin-karshiboev-a-forbidding-time-for-tajikistan-s-independent-press/.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of CABAR.asia.