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Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as Possible Drivers of Regional Cooperation in Central Asia

Reestablished ties between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, despite the bilateral nature, can play a definitive role in bolstering intra-regional co-operation. An expert on international relations Rustami Sukhrob looks into the points of contact, problems and prospects for these two neighbouring countires and attempts to explain what implications their repproachment can bring for the rest of Central Asia.


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Press-Office of the President of Tajikistan

As history has shown, the states of Central Asia in modern times are not ready to start integration processes, demonstrating only a focus on the beginning of regional cooperation. The current leaders of the Central Asian countries prefer to maintain their autonomy both in domestic and foreign policy, and the concept of “independence” and “sovereignty” for the leaders of the regional countries, without exception, is sacred.

Pre-requisites for cooperation between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

During the rule of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, economic relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe developed very slowly and unstably, depending on the state of affairs between these countries, given the comprehensive pressure and isolation measures of the Uzbek leadership in relation to Tajikistan. Such mode of relations existed despite the agreement of “eternal friendship” that both countries signed.[1]

After the change of power in Uzbekistan in 2016, the international community could observe a gradual process of thaw in relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe. The main success on the way of rapprochement and strengthening of cooperation between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan was the signing of an agreement “on mutual trips of citizens of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan” back in 2018, which made life easier for millions of citizens on both sides. This facet became a trigger for the development of tourism in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Starting from March 16, 2018, citizens of the two countries can stay in each other’s territory without a visa (up to 30 days) with valid travel documents (diplomatic, service, and regular international passport).[2]

In 2018, the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon was on a working visit to Tashkent, following which 26 new documents were signed. Among these documents, there were several significant and “life-changing” agreements that radically changed the relationship between the two countries. One of such agreements was the “Agreement on strategic partnership between the Republic of Tajikistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan”.[3] The President of Tajikistan placed emphasis on the fact that “interstate relations will not be successful if they do not contribute to connections between ordinary people and human communication.”[4]

Meanwhile, it should be emphasized that not so long-ago, Dushanbe and Tashkent were in a state similar to “cold war” for many years. Therefore, the improvement and deepening of relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will have a positive effect not only for the citizens of these countries but can also help reduce the potential for conflict in the region.

After Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power, among other things a rapid growth of economic cooperation began, as well as a process of economic complementarity (gas, fuel and lubricant supplies to Tajikistan from Uzbekistan, electricity supplies from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan, and etc.).

Economic development

The level and potentials of economic development in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan differ. According to the forecasts of the World Bank, the annual GDP growth of Tajikistan in 2020 will be -2%, and in 2021 it will grow up to 3.7%. The World Bank made the most favorable forecast for Uzbekistan: in 2020, the country’s GDP will amount to 1.5%, and in 2021, it will grow up to 6.6%.[5]

Table 1.[6]

Despite the fact that it is difficult to compare the level of economic development of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the countries can build mutually beneficial cooperation. Dushanbe can get great opportunities for the development of its economy, using more developed infrastructure (railway, automobile, and air communications) of Tashkent for exporting its goods to Russia and the EU countries, and for transporting goods from China to Uzbekistan.

Table 2.[7]

Table 3.[10]

According to the trade portal of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan ranks fifth among the main trade partners of the Republic of Tajikistan in 2019.

Table 4.[13]

In addition to the intensification of economic cooperation, there are also other areas of common interest for both states, which can serve as a decent support for regional cooperation.

Areas of common interest

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have a lot in common in the political system. Firstly, both states are presidential republics with many similar characteristics in the state structure. Secondly, both republics are unitary, with a similar administrative-territorial division of the country: region, city, district, urban settlements, rural community, and village. The countries are secular republics and the state is separated from religion. Moreover, Tashkent and Dushanbe are members of many international organizations, such as the UN, CIS, OSCE, OIC, IBRD, IMF, SCO, etc.

The commonality of cultural origins and traditions of the two countries is beyond doubt. For more than a thousand years, both nations have lived together side by side as part of one or another state (Samanids, Ghaznavids, Temurids, Mongol Empire, Bukhara Emirate, Kokand Khanate, Russian Empire, Soviet Union). For this reason, they are very similar to each other both culturally and in terms of national traditions. In both countries, one religion is professed – Islam as well as one madhab – Hanafi. The only difference between these nations is their belonging to two different language families, Uzbeks are Turkic, and Tajiks are Persian. Despite this fact, even today many borrowed words can be found in the two languages.

Resolving the issues of delimitation and demarcation of state borders between countries, in our opinion, is one of the most important factors on the path to mutually beneficial cooperation. With the beginning of the “thaw” in Uzbekistan, the new leadership took a course towards solving all border problems and disputes with neighbors that had been accumulating for decades. Over the past 4 years, bilateral meetings have been held between Tashkent and Dushanbe, visits by members of ministries and committees dealing with the demarcation and delimitation of state borders, dozens of treaties and agreements at the highest level have also been signed, including:

– Protocol on the exchange of memorandums on the ratification of the treaty on certain sections of the state border of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Tashkent, 17.08.2018).[14]

– Agreement on separate sections of the Uzbek-Tajik State Border.[15]

Throughout the entire period of the coronavirus pandemic, despite the closure of state borders and the individual struggle of each country with this virus, Dushanbe and Tashkent agreed to jointly fight the spread of “COVID-19”. It should be noted that Uzbekistan is one of the main “donors” of humanitarian aid to the Republic of Tajikistan. For four months of the current year, Tajikistan has received humanitarian aid from the neighboring republic in the amount of 2.5 million US dollars. For comparison, for the same period in 2019, Tajikistan received humanitarian assistance from Uzbekistan in the amount of only about 160 thousand US dollars.[16]

On April 9, Uzbekistan dispatched 18 railway carriages with medicines and food to Tajikistan.[17] On May 8 of the current year, Uzbekistan sent a group of eight doctors to Dushanbe to help their colleagues from Tajikistan in the fight against coronavirus infection.[18]

The Uzbek company UzAuto Motors, as part of support during the pandemic, sent a batch of ambulances to Tajikistan. These cars are designed specifically for transporting patients, in addition, each car is equipped with additional personal protective equipment for doctors from coronavirus infection.[19]

Unresolved issues

Meanwhile, despite the thawing of relations, there are still many unresolved “problems” and “issues” between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

According to Rasul Zhumaly, a Kazakh expert on Central Asia, the thawing of relations between Dushanbe and Tashkent “is a temporary phenomenon”. He believes that there are still many unresolved issues between the countries, in particular, issues of state borders, illegal transportation of goods, security, and most importantly, this is the problem of water regulation. According to R. Zhumaly, when the dams for hydroelectric power plants in Tajikistan begin to be closed, then problems will begin for Uzbekistan, which is located downstream and is completely dependent on rivers in Tajikistan.[20]

Both countries try to avoid touching on unresolved or “unsolvable” issues as much as possible, focusing and developing those areas that bring the points of contact closer.

It should be emphasized that the expert from Kazakhstan expressed his opinion back in 2016, when Sh. Mirziyoyev was not even elected president of Uzbekistan. But so far, the above-mentioned problems are either not resolved or are not fully resolved. In conditions of very good atmosphere in relations (mutually beneficial cooperation), both countries try to avoid touching on unresolved or “unsolvable” issues as much as possible, focusing and developing those areas that bring the points of contact closer.

Despite all the positive aspects of the thawing of relations between the countries, anxiety, fear, and distrust of each other have been preserved at the reflex level. Almost 4 years have passed since the thaw in relations, and the visa-free regime between the “fraternal” republics is stuck high on the top of Khazrati Sulton.[21] Until the visa regime between the countries is canceled, there is no chance  of deepening cooperation, in particular in the economic sphere and the so-called “strategic partnership” between Dushanbe and Tashkent.

Conclusion

Thus, it can be stated that Tashkent and Dushanbe have enough areas of common interest in order to claim the role of drivers of regional cooperation in the future while maintaining and further developing active political and economic interaction. Despite the fact that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are de facto authoritarian republics, in the case of their active economic cooperation, the lives of millions of citizens on both sides of the border will become much easier, if not better. Economic cooperation between the countries of the region will make it possible to solve many difficulties that the citizens of the countries of the region are facing. It is important to understand that any changes that occur, be they economic or political, directly affect other countries.

Strengthening cooperation between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, in fact, can play a crucial and a key role for regional cooperation in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has already made the first move (improved relations with all countries of the region and signed many mutually beneficial and strategic partnership agreements) in order to claim the central link in regional political and economic processes. All this became possible due to the new domestic and foreign policy of Sh. Mirziyoyev. The changes in the political climate in Central Asia completely transformed the course of events in the region and directly influenced the entire spectrum of Central Asian relations both between the countries of the region and among international and regional actors (Russia, the USA, the EU and China).

As the recent events associated with the Uzbek thaw, the holding of two consultative meetings, and Kazakhstan’s discontent with the EAEU show, the stakes on intraregional cooperation are growing.

In addition, in the context of a new global crisis (due to COVID-19) and a sharp drop in all economies of the region’s countries, the need to consolidate the region is growing. Central Asian leaders soberly assess the current situation and realize that joint opposition to the emerging threats and challenges will be more effective and less costly, in contrast to an individual struggle. It follows that in the near future, in the so-called “post-coronavirus” period, many “unexpected” events will take place in the Central Asian republics that will change the political landscape of the region and lead to a change in the balance of power in the region.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project


[1] Agreement between the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Tajikistan on eternal friendship [Electronic resource] // Dushanbe, June 15, 2000. URL: https://www.lex.uz/docs/2121650?otherlang= (date of access: 15.07.2020)

[2] Kostyunina G. M. Integration associations of the world / G. M. Kostyunina, N. N. Liventsev // World economy and international economic relations: textbook / ed. A.S. Bulatov and N.N. Liventseva. – M., Magister, 2008. — page. 164-187.

[3] Agreement between the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Tajikistan on strategic partnership / [Electronic resource]. URL: https://lex.uz/docs/4108695  (date of access: 25.06.2020)

[4] Ibid.

[5] The World Bank. URL: https://data.worldbank.org/country/tajikistan?view=chart, https://data.worldbank.org/country/uzbekistan?view=chart

[6] Economy of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Online statistics. URL: https://take-profit.org/statistics/gdp/tajikistan/, https://take-profit.org/statistics/countries/uzbekistan/

[7] Agency on Statistics under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan: https://www.stat.tj/ru/tables-external-sector

[8] State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Statistics: https://stat.uz/ru/164-ofytsyalnaia-statystyka-ru/6587-vneshneekonomicheskaya-deyatelnost

[9] Ibid.

[10] Agency on Statistics under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan: https://www.stat.tj/ru/tables-external-sector

[11] State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Statistics: https://stat.uz/ru/164-ofytsyalnaia-statystyka-ru/6587-vneshneekonomicheskaya-deyatelnost

[12] Ibid.

[13] Trade partners of the Republic of Tajikistan. URL: https://tajtrade.tj/menu/28?l=ru

[14] Official website of the President of the Republic of Tajikistan: http://president.tj/ru/node/18186

[15] Official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan: https://mfa.uz/ru/press/news/2018/03/14180/

[16] Uzbekistan has become the main supplier of humanitarian aid for Tajikistan. URL:

https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/society/20200522/uzbekistan-stal-glavnim-postavtshikom-gumpomotshi-dlya-tadzhikistana  

[17] CIS Executive Committee – Uzbekistan has sent 24 tons of medicin to Tajikistan to fight coronavirus. URL: http://cis.minsk.by/news/14672/uzbekistan_otpravil_v_tadzhikistan_24_tonny_lekarstv_dlja_borby_s_koronavirusom

[18] Official website of the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan in the Republic of Tajikistan. URL: http://tajikistan.mfa.uz/page/247#

[19] Uzbekistan has sent ambulances to Tajikistan. URL: https://tj.sputniknews.ru/country/20200513/1031230560/uzbekistan-otpravil-tajikistan-avtomobily-skoraya-pomoschj.html

[20] “Uzbek-Tajik relations can affect Central Asia.” URL: https://rus.azattyk.org/a/28028017.html

[21] Hazrati Sulton – a mountain peak in the Gissar ridge on the border of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan

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