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Uzbekistan: Change of Tune Coming on Roghun Dam?

A top lawmaker in Uzbekistan has made public statements that may signal a slight softening of Tashkent’s hardline position on Tajikistan’s planned Roghun hydropower plant.

Speaking at a press club huddle on June 1, Boriy Alihanov, the deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, said that Uzbekistan was in favor of a rational and fair use of transboundary water resources in line with international law.

At first glance, the remarks do not seem significant, but in fact they do mark a shift from the hostile rhetoric toward the Tajik project typically coming out of Uzbekistan.

“The leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan recently laid out their position on this matter. And this regards Roghun and other major hydro projects built along [tributaries] to the Aral Sea. The Amudarya and Syrdarya and other rivers in this basin are part of single ecosystem that needs to be carefully preserved,” Alihanov said in comments cited by Sputnik news website.

The Roghun dam, where work resumed in earnest last year, will sit on the Vakhsh River, which is a tributary of the Amudarya, which in turn flows into southern areas of Uzbekistan and then along the border with Turkmenistan.

Tashkent’s concerns are twofold. One is that it will lose significant control over the water comes downstream and used for irrigation. Specifically, the worry is that the period of Tajikistan’s peak electricity demand is in winter and that this will prompt Dushanbe to dump large amounts of stored water downstream at a time when Uzbekistan’s fields are not in need of irrigation. Another risk cited by Uzbek experts is that Roghun is being built in a seismically active area and that the dam’s sudden destruction could cause major death and destruction.

Alihanov said that ongoing work to draw up a convention on the Aral Sea should create the groundwork for a mechanism to coordinate use of water resources in Central Asia.

Ever since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power, following the death of Islam Karimov, Roghun has pretty much disappeared from the agenda. So much so that when work began in October on building the dam — an operation personally overseen by Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon — Uzbekistan registered no reaction at all.

And yet it was Mirziyoyev himself, while prime minister, that wrote a letter in July to his Tajik counterpart to register deep displeasure about the project. The letter was a reaction to Tajikistan signing an agreement for Italian contractor Salini Impregilo to oversee the work.

"We deem it necessary to once again draw your attention to the fact that a number of studies at the construction site and, most importantly, a comprehensive international study of the project conducted under the auspices of the World Bank have confirmed that the construction of the Roghun hydropower plant is fraught with enormous threats for the whole of Central Asia,” Mirziyoyev wrote at the time.

The change of tack would certainly conform to Mirziyoyev’s broader ambitions to overcome historic difficulties with neighboring countries. In that spirit, Uzbekistan appears open to the possibility of dropping its opposition to Roghun on condition that usage of rivers is subject to strict coordination.

Historian Maxim Matnazarov said that the improvement of relations with Tajikistan should not be read to mean that Tashkent has given its blessing to the dam, however.

“Mirziyoyev does not want to aggravate the situation surrounding the construction of the hydroelectric power plant, the way that Karimov did. Apparently, a new approach will be developed in which there will be some kind of agreement on the sharing of water during those periods in which Uzbekistan needs water to irrigate its fields,” Matnazarov said.

While there is already seemingly promising language about a workable UN-sponsored convention on the Aral, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been busy at work thrashing out a protocol on the delimitation of disputed border areas. An intergovernmental commission assembled in Dushanbe signed the agreement on June 1, setting the stage for the resolution of another serious irritant to bilateral relations. Asia-Plus newspaper reported that only 60 kilometers of shared border remain to be agreed upon.

The nature of Central Asian diplomacy is such that interpersonal relations are of paramount importance. Karimov and Rahmon hated one another. But the photos of Mirziyoyev and Rahmon’s first meeting as presidents, at the recent summit of Arab and Muslim countries in Saudi Arabia, told another story. If the relationship between the two countries is as warm as the two leaders’ embrace, then good times await.

Uzbekistan: Change of Tune Coming on Roghun Dam?

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