For more than a decade Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have had a rocky relationship. But now, following an announcement by Tashkent that it is withdrawing from the Central Asian electricity grid, bilateral ties may take a dangerous nosedive.
Uzbekistan's decision hits Tajikistan hard, denying Dushanbe much-needed power imports at the onset of winter. Some in Dushanbe are signaling that the Tajik government is not going to be pushed around by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's administration. If Uzbekistan does not quickly reverse its decision, some Tajiks suggest Dushanbe will retaliate by restricting water supplies that Tashkent desperately needs to keep the country's cotton sector afloat during the spring and summer. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A big bilateral spat at this time could create a major headache for US military operations in Afghanistan. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are both key cogs in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a supply line that funnels military supplies overland from Europe to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. If Dushanbe and Uzbekistan aren't cooperating, the flow of supplies into Afghanistan could experience disruptions.
In the brewing crisis over power, Tajikistan has no choice but to make a stand. Uzbekistan's departure from the grid completely isolates Tajikistan, making it impossible for Dushanbe to import power from other Central Asian states, especially Turkmenistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Tashkent's move also will obstruct Tajikistan's ability to export electricity during the flush summer months, when Tajik hydropower plants - thanks to snowmelt-fed rivers - are working at full capacity.
The Soviet-era grid was built in such a way that Tajikistan would be a seller of hydro-electric power during the summer and an importer during the winter months. Generating lots of hydro-power in the spring and summer had the additional benefit of releasing a vast amount of water needed to irrigate Uzbekistan's cotton fields.
Uzbekistan's departure from the grid is completely upending the supply-and-demand calculus. Uzbek officials justify their action by saying Tajikistan regularly steals power and that Tashkent must protect its interests. On November 23, Uzbek Ambassador Shokasym Shoislamov told journalists in Dushanbe that his government was abandoning the grid because the system was falling apart. He also alleged the "fragile and vulnerable" Soviet system allowed members to "uncontrollably and with impunity steal energy in their own interests."
Isolated Tajikistan has long grappled with crippling energy shortages. A serious failure in early November left much of the country without power for several days. At the time, Tajik energy officials blamed Uzbekistan's undeclared exit from the unified network in late October.
Some experts speculate the reason Uzbekistan may be leaving the grid is the completion of a 500-kW power transmission line linking Tashkent with the southern Surxondaryo region over a route that bypasses Tajik territory. The line is expected to be operational on December 1, Uzbek and Tajik media outlets have reported.
With all energy imports now blocked, officials at the Tajik energy monopoly, Barki Tajik, say they will be forced to release more water from the country's reservoirs this winter to create power - water Uzbekistan needs for irrigation next summer. Barki Tajik representatives also have suggested they will stockpile more water throughout summer 2010, meaning that downstream supplies could be significantly lower than normal.
"Along with the withdrawal from the unified energy grid, Uzbekistan has broken off our water and energy agreements. [...] Accordingly, the Tajik energy system is forced now to make the most use of our hydropower plants to cover domestic needs," the deputy head of Barki Tajik's control center, Sergei Tkachenko, said in comments distributed November 25 by the Asia-Plus news agency.
Officials and analysts in Dushanbe say Tashkent's annual machinations, and now its departure from the grid, are political moves designed to keep Tajikistan isolated and weak, and thus unable to construct more hydropower plants. Tashkent has long protested Tajik plans to exploit the energy potential of its rivers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Annually, under different excuses, Uzbekistan impedes the transit of energy to Tajikistan, as well as the export of Tajik power in the summer period when we have a surplus of hydropower," Alexei Silantiev, an advisor to the head of Barki Tajik, complained in comments widely carried by local media outlets. "Uzbekistan is perfectly aware that Tajikistan suffers from power deficits in winter, putting pressure on our country."
Others have suggested that Tashkent may be trying to weaken the government in Dushanbe.
Uzbekistan's decisions "have a bearing on Tajikistan's economic and domestic political situation," the Digest Press weekly quoted Tajik political analyst Shokirjon Khakimov as saying in its November 26 edition. Uzbekistan will "undermine Tajikistan's energy security, which, in turn, might undermine the trust of [Tajik] people in the authorities." In retaliation, Khakimov suggested Dushanbe should consider withdrawal from the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia, "in charge of distribution, rational use and trans-boundary water management."
One project Tashkent has vehemently opposed is the Rogun hydropower station on the Vakhsh River. Uzbek officials have complained that the dam could limit water available for irrigation downstream. But Dushanbe sees the construction of the proposed 335-meter giant as a solution to its constant shortages, and as a means to generate much-needed import revenues.
Cost estimates for the dam complex range from $1.5 to $6 billion, but Tajik authorities, unable to raise foreign capital, now appear to be tempering expectations, and claim they can partially construct the facility for $500 million. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
As they did during the record cold winter of 2008, officials are again passing the hat. Senate Speaker and Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloyev recently appealed for ordinary Tajiks to donate to the project, promising to-be-printed shares. The project could be completed "if each of the country's 2.14 million working citizens transfers their average monthly salary, amounting to $80, to the Rogun fund," he said on November 19.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Tajikistan.