“Construction of the Rogun hydro-electric power station using Tajikistan’s own forces can give impetus to the development of many branches of the national economy, development of fundamental and applied research and studies, preparation of its own highly qualified personnel and much anything else. But a necessary condition to make it possible is the availability of the government’s vision of this problem and of the ways of solving it, coupled with firm political will of the leadership of the country”, said Rashid Ghani Abdullo, a political scientist (Dushanbe, Tajikistan), in an article written exclusively for cabar.asia.
Rogun HPP is the largest hydroelectric power plant of the Vakhsh cascade and has a strategic importance for Tajikistan, since it is believed that Rogun HPP will pull the country out of the energy crisis, which breaks out every winter because of the seasonal flow of water. The construction of this hydropower plant is important both for the population, as well as for the development of energy-intensive industries. This will provide surplus of electricity, and Tajikistan will be able to export it without any problems. This export will not be costly, as this will only require the construction of power transmission lines, which is much cheaper than building roads, railways and pipelines. In addition, the availability of this facility will allow to regulate the flow of water year-round and rid the country of droughts and floods, which in turn will give an impetus to the development of agriculture. The presence of this large energy object, provided that Tajikistan will be able to build it on its own, allow to give an impetus to the emergence and development of new industries, will give the country new competencies and ultimately transform the country from a phase of pre-industrial society into an industrial and post-industrial. After all, the construction of the largest hydroelectric power station will strengthen the position of Tajikistan in the negotiation processes.
However, the republic has faced with great difficulties, and it became a hostage of political circumstances when implementatig this major energy project.
Why did not the Soviet Union build Rogun HPP?
The Rogun project will soon celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, if we count from the time of its initial development in 1968. Unlike the other similar project – the Nurek hydropower plant, construction of the Rogun HPP on the Vakhsh river has resulted in a long and painful process, although, in the beginning, all worked supremely well for this major Central Asian hydroelectric site.
In 1968, when the Nurek hydropower plant was being actively built, the General Directorate for Energy and Electrification of the Council of Ministers of the Tajik SSR requested the Central Asian branch of the “Hydroproject” Institute in Tashkent city to develop a technical project of the Rogun hydroelectric power station. (1) The project was drawn up in 1974 and approved by the State Construction Committee of the USSR. (2) In accordance with it, the capacity of the power plant was supposed to be 3,600 MW. Six of its power units of 600 MW were supposed to produce 13.1 billion kWh a year. A reservoir with full storage of 13.3 km3 and useful storage of 10.3 cubic kilometers of water was supposed to ensure the production of a given amount of electricity. To create such a reservoir, the project provided for the construction of a rockfill dam with height of 335 meters, using local materials (3). Rogun HPP, with its high-rise dam, was originally conceived not only for electricity generation, but also as a key element of the whole system of regulation of the flow of the Vakhsh River, a system that allows, in conjunction with other hydropower facilities downstream, to maintain the optimum level of water in Amu Darya at all times.
Practical works on the implementation of the Rogun project began in 1976. On December 27, 1987, the Vakhsh river was blocked. The construction of the dam had begun. Installation and operation of the first two power units was planned already for the next year or two. However, these plans remained plans. They were never realized.
The established process of construction of the Rogun HPP was disrupted by political events, provoked by perestroika.
In the late 1980s, in line with the development of the restructuring processes in the entire Soviet Union, political participation of the population in Tajikistan had also increased. It took many forms and was full of not less diverse political content. One aspect of this activity was open and rigid confrontation, at first glance, between the so-called democratic forces and the authorities of the republic. In fact, behind this confrontation, which was possible only against the background of weakening of the power structures of the Soviet state during perestroika, there was a more serious phenomenon – the clash of different regional and political elites for the possession of power in the republic.
People dissatisfied with the proportions of access to power and participation in real decision-making that had been well established during the previous decade (mainly representatives of the south-east of the country) were actively demanding the revision of the status quo. The elites (representative of the North) who had actual power in the country did not want to change anything.
In the ensuing fight, the opponents of official authorities actively demanded to stop not only the construction of the Rogun hydropower plant, but also a number of other important and necessary for the country objects that were being erected mainly in the regions south of Anzob pass, in particular the battery factory in Kulyab.
The fight about the Rogun HPP comprised everything: active demonstrations by famous artistic people who had gained some political significance, somehow associated with regional political elites, striving for changes in the country, who gained political ional-political elites, and their protests in Moscow, and the information and political support they got from like-minded people in the large capital city, and the organization of protests by residents of areas around the place of construction of the Rogun power plant. Eventually, the station became the first major victim of political confrontation in the country.
The ruling authorities at that time surprisingly quickly succumbed to the pressure and froze its construction. Were they so weak? Hardly. In a much more complex situation in February 1990 and onwards, up until the transfer of power in Moscow to Boris Yeltsin and his team in August 1991, which initiated the precipitous collapse of the USSR, the ruling authorities in Tajikistan were confident enough to respond to the pressure from their opponents.
Regional political elites standing behind the so-called democratic forces were not so naive to abandon the Rogun project. Judging by the way the events unfolded later, the struggle to curtail the project was a way of ensuring mass support for the real forces behind the anti-Rogun actions, the support which could then be used as an effective tool in the struggle for power. I have not doubt that, once in power, they would resume the construction of that hydroelectric power station, as the possession of a powerful source had not been a burden for any government. In this case, they could count on the support of those in Moscow who struggled and eventually came to power, and who were allies of the opponents of the Tajik government at that time.
But all this did not happen. What happened in reality had never been expected by anybody: the Soviet Union collapsed. The collapse of the united country resulted for the newly independent state of Tajikistan in the collapse of the economy, civil war, territorial and political fragmentation, loss of control and general economic impoverishment.
Nobody cared about the Rogun hydroelectric power station, and the former grand construction was abandoned. In 1993, in a situation where the station was actually unattended – professionals and everybody left the Rogun, fleeing from war and economic turmoil – a flood destroyed the dam and partially flooded tunnels and the turbine room, which previously had been almost ready.
Impossible to construct using local resources, but investors do not hurry to invest
The cumulative effect of these factors throughout the 1990s made the resumption of the construction almost impossible. Only after stabilization of the military-political situation in the country and certain positive developments in terms of significantly advancing restoration of the statehood and manageability of the republic, the possibility of resuming the implementation of the Rogun project became more vivid. However, the consequences of the collapse of the economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the civil war led to the fact that the republic had neither the financial capacity, nor the respective competencies for the implementation of such a large project on its own.
Under these circumstances, the republic was forced to seek assistance of potential investors. The latter were not quick to respond favorably to Tajikistan’s appeals, due to the uncertainty of the prospects of return on investment, not to mention the commercial gain. Besides, there were not many potential investors.
Rogun HPP is a very large scale and financially very costly project. The assessment by experts of the volume of funds required to complete the construction of this power plant range from about three to six billion dollars. This amount of money may be affordable only for very large foreign private companies or group of companies, as well as States having the opportunity to finance the implementation of such projects directly from the budget or through related companies. Today the Rogun project does not cause interest among large private external investors. There are not so many states that could be considered as potential investors of the Rogun project. Russia, China, Iran and rich Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf are the only potential countries-investors.
For Tajikistan, the best option would be the resumption of Russian participation in the project. However, in the 1990s, Russia, without giving up the very possibility of the resumption of the project, did not make any practical steps in this direction. In the 1990s, Russia could not engage in the Rogun project, due to objective reasons. It was experiencing serious economic and financial difficulties and problems. In addition, Boris Yeltsin and people close to him were largely in favor of rapprochement with the West. Matters relating to the Russian-Central Asian relations were not their priority subject. This was compounded by the factor of ideological sympathies and antipathies among the environment of the Russian President.
China, unlike Russia, already in the 1990s, had the financial and technical capability to enable it to invest in the implementation of hydropower projects in Tajikistan. But China chose not to rush things. The economic strategy, implemented in China in the 1990s, did not involve any of its participation in such projects either in Tajikistan or in Central Asia as a whole.
Iran, which is under the permanent sanctions of Western countries, saw in Russia a political force, which in the end of the 1990s began to move away from associating its main interests with the interests of the West and objectively could be useful in opposition to Western political and economic pressure. Realizing the importance of favorable attitude of Russia, including as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Iran avoided any possibility of the collision of its interests with the interests of Russia in the post-Soviet space. Accordingly, there was nothing surprising in the fact that Iran has adhered to a cautious approach to the question of its possible involvement in the implementation of the Rogun project.
As for the participation of the Arab monarchies in the project, in the 1990s, the republic itself for various reasons, including political and ideological, did not show any interest in such a possibility. Exactly for the same reasons, monarchies had rather reserved attitude to the development of the broader relationship with the republic.
From time to time, there were various options for Pakistan’s participation in the Rogun project. However, all of them were characterized by one feature – the indirect nature of the project financing. As a rule, there were offered some transactions, in accordance with which products of Pakistani manufacturers were supposed to be sold in Tajikistan, and then the money received would be invested in the construction of hydroelectric power plant. In the real conditions of the republic, such options were inoperable.
Investors have come, but not for the Rogun
In the 2000s, there were somewhat more favorable conditions for the participation of foreign investors in the implementation of hydropower projects in Tajikistan. Thus, Russia’s attitude on the issue of participation in such projects had slightly changed. This was fully facilitated by the fact that Russia was recovering from the political and economic upheavals of the past decade and gained a lot of financial opportunities. It was also possible due to the adjustment in the foreign policy priorities of the new Russian government. In 2004, the changes made it possible to achieve bilateral agreements on Russia’s participation in completion of Sangtuda-1 HPP and resumption of its participation in the Rogun project. The task of completion of Sangtuda-1 was delegated to “Unified Energy System of Russia” (“RAO UES”), while the implementation of the Rogun project was delegated to “RUSAL” of Oleg Deripaska.
During these years, the development of China’s economy began to reach the level, which made attractive an idea to obtain access to the hydrocarbon and other important resources throughout the world. Central Asia was no exception. As part of a new strategy for the growing Chinese economy, Central Asia was necessary not only as a market for Chinese goods and services. The region became interesting for China as a reliable source of raw materials (ores and concentrates of nonferrous metals, and the metals themselves – aluminum, copper, etc.), energy resources (oil, gas, electricity) available to the countries of Central Asia. (4)
Under these new conditions, China decided to take a course for intensifying its political, economic, military, information, etc. relations with the Central Asian countries not only bilaterally, but also multilaterally, within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In particular, in the framework of implementation of the strategy “exit outside”, the Tajik and Chinese parties were able to reach an agreement on the construction of a middle hydropower plant on the river of Zarafshan.
The rapid rise in oil prices in 2000 consolidated financial capabilities of Iran. The life under constant Western sanctions and the consequent need for self-reliance, coupled with increased oil revenues, contributed to a sharp increase in scientific and technical potential of the country and its attainment of competence in the implementation of technically complex projects. The Iranian leadership has shown interest in the implementation of hydropower projects in Tajikistan. This interest had led to the signing of the Tajik-Iranian agreement on the construction of Sangtuda-2 with Iranian participation.
However, the Rogun project, as might be expected, was out of this interest.
Rogun project – a hostage to political games
Of all the agreements for the participation of Russia, China and Iran in the construction of large and medium hydropower plants today, only the projects of Sangtuda-1 and 2 were implemented by Russia and Iran, respectively. The agreements to participate in other projects have remained unrealized, first of all, due to the negative attitude of Uzbekistan toward them.
When in October 2004, there were signed the Tajik-Russian agreements, providing for, inter alia, Russia’s renewed participation in the implementation of the Rogun project, Uzbekistan began to rapidly build up its strategic cooperation with the United States. In this context, the feeling was that the political component in the accord of Russia to resume its real participation in the Rogun project was extremely significant. Unfortunately, Tajikistan failed to properly take advantage of the favorable situation for the Rogun project and to quickly start the implementation of this bilateral agreement.
After the Andijan events in 2005, the political atmosphere for the project ceased to be favorable. In response to the severe sanctions by the US and its Western allies against Uzbekistan, Moscow and Beijing immediately supported Tashkent. Under the new circumstances and against the background of Uzbekistan’s course to reduce the US military presence on its territory (the decision to close down the US base in Khanabad), the already considerable political significance of Uzbekistan for these countries was even greater.
Under these new circumstances, disputes suddenly began to arise between the Tajiks and “RUSAL” over the nature of the dam – whether it should be rockfill or made of concrete, as well as its height. “RUSAL”, as a private company, explained its position on the need for the construction of a concrete dam, instead of rockfill dam, and reduce the height by considerations of commercial benefit. At the same time, initially it was clear that the Tajiks would never accept such proposals. Ultimately, the intention to cooperate with the “RUSAL” did not work out – Tajikistan and RUSAL disagreed with each other.
An attempt involving China to build a hydropower plant on Zeravshan and Kazakhstan’s intention to fund through the “Kasina” foundation the construction of the Navobad hydroelectric plant were also failed.
There is no doubt that hardly any of the above-mentioned potential investors today will begin the real cooperation with Tajikistan in the implementation of its hydropower projects, for the simple reason that the need to ensure their own interests forces Russia to take into account Uzbekistan’s position. The position of Uzbekistan is disagreement with the implementation of large hydraulic and hydropower projects involving the construction of large dams on the rivers of Tajikistan.
The Uzbek party, as a rule, justifies its position by environmental and social factors, as well as by its concerns about devastating natural disasters in the aftermath. Once again, this position was announced on September 25 in New York during the speech made by the Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov of Uzbekistan at the UN Summit on Sustainable Development. (6)
In Tajikistan, however, there is little doubt that the tough position of Uzbekistan is caused not only by the mentioned concerns, but mostly by political concerns. Political concerns are reduced to the fact that with the completion of construction of the Rogun and other medium and large hydropower plants in Tajikistan and the implementation of similar projects in Kyrgyzstan, both upstream countries of the Central Asian rivers will not only acquire abilities to control their flow, but also will resort to the use of these opportunities in their political purposes.
Thus, as in the late 1980s, the Rogun project has become hostage to political circumstances, not internal, but external.
In connection with the stalemate situation with the involvement of foreign investors to participate in the Rogun project from the outside, there have been voices that it would be more rational for Tajikistan to launch the construction of a large number of small hydropower plants instead of the implementation of the Rogun project; as small HPPs do not require the construction of high dams and the formation of large reservoirs. The authorities in Tajikistan do not agree with this approach, first of all, for the simple reason that small hydropower plants cannot contribute to the generation of the volume of electricity necessary to meet the needs of the agricultural and industrial development of the country.
No alternative to building Rogun HPP by Tajikistan’s own forces
The republic’s leadership, recognizing that attracting foreign investors and participants in the Rogun project is not yet possible, set a course for the realization of this project by their own efforts. The fact that the republic decided to independently carry out such a complex project has its positive effects.
As experience have shown that external partners, whether it is a major private company, bank or the government, prefer to implement projects with their participation and on their own terms. In particular, they feel more comfortable and profitable to attract forces to realize the project from outside. As a result, Tajikistan receives a finished object but does not find the corresponding management, development, technical, engineering, and other competencies. This model does not contribute to the development of the country and the transformation of society; it rather preserves retardation.
The absence of a real external investor for the Rogun project allows to change the existing order of things.
In modern conditions in Tajikistan, the independent implementation (without external investor’s participation) of the Rogun hydropower and other projects can be done only by the government, because of the extreme complexity of this task (exception here can only be the construction of small hydro power plants).
It is clear that the implementation of the construction requires as much as possible to mobilize their own not only financial and material, but, more importantly, organizational, administrative, engineering and other human resources, as well as to promote the reproduction of these resources.
Construction of Rogun using Tajikistan’s own resources, implying the involvement of necessary experts from the outside, can give impetus to the development of many branches of the national economy, the development of fundamental and applied research and studies, training of its own highly qualified staff and much anything else. But making it possible requires the availability of the state’s vision of the problem and of the ways of solving it, coupled with firm political will of the leadership of the country to solve this problem, so that the very construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power station and other major hydropower projects through own resources becomes a tool for the radical transformation of Tajikistan. It is a tool for gaining their ow competencies – political, managerial, scientific, technical, logistics, etc., which may ultimately transform the republic into a truly modern developing country.
There is no problem with the political will aimed at step-by-step implementation of the Rogun project on its own. It is there. It is desirable that this political will would be enough to ensure that the construction of the Rogun HPP becomes the engine of development and radical transformation of the country and society.
4. Rashid Alimov, “Tajikistan and China: a course of strategic partnership”, Ves mir, Moscow. 2014 .pp. 120-121, 125-126
Rashid Ghani Abdullo, a political scientist
The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of cabar.asia