Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have had strained relations since independence from the USSR in 1991. Border disputes fueled by the existence of ethnic minorities outside of their politically defined homelands, fears of terrorists crossing the countries’ shared border, and conflicting interests regarding energy policy all contribute to the lack of cooperation. The long time President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who passed away in September, was a hardliner whose stringent policies allowed little room for rapprochement with Tajikistan. In the interim before the December elections, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has succeeded Karimov. Though Karimov displayed opinions similar to Karimov’s in the past, his actions since September suggest that some sort of reconciliation with Tajikistan may be possible. In order to facilitate partnership between these two countries, a comprehensive solution to the problems should be pursued that enables each country to prioritize their own demands while still cooperating overall.
Following the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, several Central Asian republics emerged from the former USSR, including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. When these states declared independence, there were no formal boundaries yet and to this day, border territories are frequently disputed, particularly among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has the largest population and Uzbeks are the largest ethnic group in the region with about 15% of Tajik residents claiming Uzbek ethnicity. Likewise, within Uzbekistan, there is also a 5% minority of ethnic Tajiks. Many of the territorial disputes occur in the Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan, which is bordered to the southwest by Tajikistan and to the south, east, and north by Kyrgyzstan. Besides territorial disputes, other problems in the region include security and energy issues. Since the turn of the millennium, fears of Islamist terrorists in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have grown. Both countries have a majority Muslim population and have contended with homegrown Islamist militants in the past. The position on their borders of Afghanistan, suspected to harbor Taliban and ISIS members, further intensifies their fear. In terms of energy, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan are blessed with natural resources like gas and precious metals while Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are situated at the sources of the main rivers in the region. These rivers provide the essential water for the downstream Uzbek cotton industry so past attempts at potentially diverting the flow of water for a hydroelectric dam have been met by the Uzbeks with serious opposition. However, Tajikistan’s energy needs are dire, especially in the winter when residents, under the current Tajik power system, only have a few hours of electricity per day. In the past, due to these pertinent issues revolving around borders, terrorist threats, and water, cooperation between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has not been successful. However, these issues will not resolve themselves and clearly the two states need to reach some sort of an agreement. A deal that could potentially address more than one issue and thus foster compromise, concession, and greater cooperation seems to be an ideal solution. With the death of the Uzbek president Islam Karimov in September 2016, each country may also now have greater room to maneuver and come to an agreement.
Relevant Issues: Border Dispute, Terrorism, and Energy
Before examining what the diplomatic actions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan regarding cooperation on the three stated issues have been, the history of these issues should be further explained. As noted above, Uzbekistan contains ethnic Tajiks and Tajikistan houses a sizable number of ethnic Uzbeks. Predictably, the minorities live near the borders of their ethnic homes and to this day, 105 kilometers of the Uzbek-Tajik border still remain disputed. Similarly, approximately 330 kilometers of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border on the northern side of the Fergana Valley continue to be contested.[i]
Compared to the overall length of the Uzbek-Tajik border (1332 kilometers), 105 kilometers may not seem so significant. However, to be a modern day state, territorial integrity is extremely important (as exhibited by the signing of the Helsinki Accords during the Cold War to encourage cooperation between the West and the communist bloc). Also, Uzbekistan has placed mines, supposedly to fend off potential terrorists, along its border with Tajikistan. Regardless of the official reason for these mines, dozens of Tajik civilians have been injured by the mines, further inflaming tensions between the two countries.[ii]_
Lastly, under the leadership of Karimov, border disputes led to the suspension of direct flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe beginning in 1992 and a difficult visa regime for Tajiks trying to enter Uzbekistan. To this day, flights have not resumed between the capitals and the visa regime remains stringent.
Regarding security, both countries border Afghanistan and worry about Taliban members or other Islamist extremists crossing their ill-protected borders and terrorizing their countries. This fear is not unwarranted either, since both countries in the past have dealt with Islamist extremism. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has executed bombings and attacks in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, such as the 2004 attempt on Karimov’s life and 2005 bombings in Dushanbe.[iii]_
Like the Islamic State (ISIS), with whom the IMU is now allied, the IMU wants to remove the presidents of the Central Asian states and create a Muslim state governed by Shari’a law. Under the strict authoritarian regimes of Karimov and Rahmon, extremist uprisings, such as the one in Andijan, Uzbekistan, were mercilessly countered and since then, both countries have moved to further suppress Islamist extremism in their countries. More moderate Islamist groups have also been targeted. In 2015, Tajikistan banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and arrested its leaders who were apparently relatively moderate.[iv]_
Whether this action has actually prevented additional extremism from arising or if it has instead had the opposite effect of removing the moderates and inciting extremism is yet to be seen.
Last but certainly not least are disputes involving energy between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Beginning in 1959 during Soviet times, Tajikistan expressed interest in building its own significant energy source in the form of the Rogun hydroelectric dam on the Vakhsh River in southern Tajikistan. Construction began during the mid 1970s, but was slow and eventually stopped following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, the desire for the dam and its electricity was reignited in 2008 and 2009 after Uzbekistan withdrew from the Soviet era Central Asian United Energy System (a shared power grid), causing Tajikistan to be cut off from most of its electricity supply.[v]
If constructed, the $3.9 billion Rogun Dam would be the tallest in the world at approximately 335 meters high and would generate 3,600 MW of electricity from six turbines.[vi]_
In the summer months, Tajikistan would have a surplus of electricity that it can sell to Pakistan. This surplus electricity is the crux of a broader infrastructure-building project named the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000). With that renewed interest in the dam, construction began again but was halted in 2012 partly due to Uzbekistan’s opposition of the project and the EU’s demand for an independent study to be done to assess the myriad effects of the dam on land and local populations.[vii]
At this time, Karimov vehemently criticized the dam and said it would “escalate tensions…[and] even wars could be the result.”[viii]_
As Uzbekistan is located downstream of Tajikistan, it claims its own water supply, which is vital for Uzbekistan’s large cotton growing industry, would be damaged. Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth largest cotton producer and agriculture comprises 20% of its economy so a decrease in its water supply would have noticeable economic consequences. From 2012-2014, the World Bank completed an assessment and ultimately found that the dam was physically stable enough to be built, that measures can be taken to reasonably mitigate all types of risks, that resettlement planning can adequately accommodate the thousands of Tajiks who need to be moved, and that the downstream flow would not be significantly affected if the Nurek hydropower plant (also located in Tajikistan) is converted to a run-of-river hydropower plant.[ix]_
Despite this comprehensive report, Rustam Azimov, Uzbekistan’s finance minister, denounced it and claimed that Uzbekistan would “never and under no circumstances give its support to this project.”[x]
In general, Karimov and Azimov have criticized Tajikistan’s pursuit of what they deem a doddering, Soviet era project.
Now that the reign of Karimov in Uzbekistan is over, there is some potential for Uzbekistan’s stance on border disputes, security issues, and the Rogun Dam to shift. Though a new president has not been elected yet (this will occur in December), Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the former prime minister and current interim president, is likely to take control. In the past, Mirziyoyev expressed views similar to Karimov’s regarding these issues and is similarly “tough and brutish,”[xi]_
but since his ascension to the interim presidency, Mirziyoyev has also fired and reshuffled dozens of officials in the state and local governments.[xii]_
Thus, while it is reasonably likely that Mirziyoyev’s domestic stance will continue the tradition of authoritarianism, it is not immediately clear whether his foreign relations policies will mirror Karimov’s.
In the few years before Karimov’s death, relations in terms of cross-border cooperation were improving between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but the Rogun Dam always remained a point of contention. For example, after a several year long decline in the volume of trade between the two countries, trade began to rise in 2015.[xiii]_
Since much of Tajikistan’s imports and exports via railway have to pass through Uzbekistan, Karimov often stopped the trains, confiscated goods, and sometimes turned the trains back, especially if they were transporting materials that could be used for the dam. However, now that Russia is attempting to consolidate power in the region through its Eurasian Economic Union (to which neither Uzbekistan nor Tajikistan belong), both countries have additional incentives to enhance cooperation economically if they do not want succumb to pressure from Russia. In recent discussions with Tajik officials, Uzbekistan’s Finance Minister Azimov stated that Uzbekistan was prepared to supply Tajikistan with agricultural equipment and vehicles[xiv]
and Mirziyoyev has also announced that he would like to modify visa regulations and improve the ease of travel between the countries.[xv]_
At the moment, these statements await execution but could prove to be a promising change in Uzbek-Tajik relations.
In terms of mutual concerns over the influence of ISIS in both countries, cooperation has also recently begun. The leaders of both countries’ border patrol forces met in 2015 to agree to jointly patrol their shared border to guard against the migration of potential terrorists.[xvi]_
However, both countries also share a border with Afghanistan, a likely origin for ISIS or ISIS-affiliated members and on this border, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have not reached a cooperation agreement.
In July 2016, progress on the Rogun Dam was made when Tajikistan awarded the building contract to the Italian company Salini Impregilo. In response, Mirziyoyev proclaimed that the dam was a danger to the entire Central Asian region.[xvii]
At the time, the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs corroborated this point of view, saying “never and under no circumstances” will Uzbekistan support the project, which they believe will significantly reduce the amount of water flowing into Uzbekistan that is vital for their cotton crop.[xviii]_
However, it was notable that at the most recent UN General Assembly meeting on September 23, 2016, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov did not mention the Rogun Dam in his address, which had been a staple in previous speeches.[xix]_
Optimistically speaking, there has been a slow rapprochement between the two countries in the past few years. Adding to this warming relationship, Tajikistan’s President Rahmon attended Karimov’s funeral (he was one of only three foreign leaders to attend) and then had a docile discussion with Interim President Mirziyoyev in which they reasserted their hopes for good neighborly relations and agreed to facilitate further cooperation.[xx]_
To actually catalyze reconciliation and to attain benefits for both countries, a comprehensive solution that addresses multiple areas of contention should be adopted. By doing so, both countries can bargain and focus on their own interests while still sowing the seeds of cooperation.
As mentioned, the Rogun Dam has been the greatest hindrance to rapprochement and accordingly, Uzbekistan has suggested that Tajikistan build a number of smaller dams that can provide a large amount of electricity more quickly without significantly affecting the downstream water supply. Though the World Bank study into the Rogun Dam does not predict a sizable decrease in Uzbekistan’s water supply were the dam to be built, Uzbekistan’s suggestion should indeed be considered by Tajikistan. As it stands, the Rogun Dam project will cost almost $4 billion USD, which amounts to about half of Tajikistan’s overall GDP.[xxi]_
Spending 50% of GDP on one project is appalling, especially when Tajikistan suffers from a number of other issues that could benefit from extra funding (education or existing energy infrastructure for example).
To incentivize Tajikistan to look into their suggested alternative to the Rogun Dam, Uzbekistan should commit to greater economic cooperation with Tajikistan and specifically agree to refrain from interrupting Tajik goods traveling through Uzbekistan. Not only would this bolster Tajikistan’s economy, but by having fewer economic restrictions, Uzbekistan can attract additional international trade and investment and become the economic center of Central Asia. With current statistics, neither Uzbekistan nor Tajikistan is in the top five countries to or from whom either country exports or imports despite the fact that they share a border.[xxii]
Along with opening their shared border to trade, both countries should also consider easing up on travel restrictions. The benefits of doing so are manifold: ethnic minorities could reconnect to their politically defined homelands, nascent tourism could emerge, and improved cross cultural understanding could arise.
Lastly, it is in the unequivocal interest of both countries to cooperate on security issues related to potential terrorists crossing their shared border and both countries’ borders with Afghanistan. Therefore, as an added incentive for both countries, they should collaborate on intelligence initiatives regarding suspected terrorists.
To review, Tajikistan should first consider seriously and judge the feasibility of constructing several smaller, local dams that can generate the necessary electricity in the nearer future and potentially not seriously affect downriver water flow. Tajikistan has many rivers and decentralizing the system could end up being less expensive and more beneficial for delivering energy to rural areas. Second, Uzbekistan should relax its strict restrictions affecting Tajikistan’s and its own economy. Doing so can only help Tajikistan and Uzbekistan by increasing trust between the countries and making Uzbekistan a more attractive country for economic endeavors. To further improve border relations, Uzbekistan should de-mine the border and consider simpler visa regulations, which may become important with enhanced economic cooperation with Tajikistan. Finally, to counter terrorists that threaten both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, it makes sense to expand upon their joint border patrols and transparently exchange information on suspicious persons. This proposal is surely not easy to achieve nor a quick panacea for Uzbek-Tajik relations. For example, other countries involved in the CASA 1000 project, which is already under development, claim that this endeavor’s profitability relies on a functioning Rogun Dam.[xxiii]_
However, if feasibility studies are performed on several smaller dams, their ability to integrate with the CASA 1000 project can also be assessed. This paper has examined several issues between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan including those related to border disputes, both countries’ economies, security, and energy. With a new president of Uzbekistan and relations with Tajikistan recently thawing, it may be possible for the Uzbek-Tajik stalemate to end. By adopting a comprehensive strategy to address these complicated problems, some degree of flexibility is possible and the ensuing ability to compromise will offer the best chance for cooperation now and in the future.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not Caspian Policy Center.