A feud between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan threatens to inflict serious damage to the already troubled Tajik economy, as well as cause disruptions to an important supply route used by US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
For the past two months, Uzbek authorities have maintained what amounts to an economic blockade of Tajikistan, holding up at the Tajik-Uzbek border an estimated 1,000 freight cars loaded with construction materials, fuel and other commodities. Tashkent has attributed the delays to "technical and logistical" issues. Even though about 150 freight cars are said to have crossed the border into Tajikistan in recent days, tension remains high among Tajik and Uzbek officials.
Many observers believe Uzbekistan's actions are linked to Tajikistan's renewed efforts to complete the Rogun hydropower project. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Upstream and downstream Central Asian countries have long quarreled over the construction of hydropower dams that potentially could limit water needed for irrigation in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
An estimated 80 percent of Central Asia's water originates in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In addition to Dushanbe's Rogun project, Tashkent is apprehensive about Bishkek's plans to construct a hydropower plant, known as Kambarata-1. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Tajik-Uzbek spat could spell trouble for NATO troops in Afghanistan who depend on supplies delivered via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) through Uzbekistan. Some NDN supplies move from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan, from where they are trucked into Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov, speaking at UN headquarters in New York on March 24, dismissed Tashkent's explanation for the freight-traffic delays, calling them "an excuse."
The border bottleneck could adversely affect Tajikistan's agricultural sector, Oqilov said. He explained that the delayed rail deliveries threatened to create shortages of fuel and other essentials needed for the planting season, which is getting underway.
Uzbek authorities have stated publicly that they would endorse construction of hydropower dams in Tajikistan, if an independent feasibility study confirmed that they would have no serious impact on existing water flows. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In practice, however, Uzbekistan seems determined to do everything possible to frustrate Tajik efforts to establish its energy independence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The seemingly irreconcilable differences between Dushanbe and Tashkent would appear to put to rest for the foreseeable future any talk of a regional water consortium. Experts believe a consortium is not feasible at present, in large part due to competing political ambitions and reported personal rivalries among regional leaders, especially Uzbek leader Islam Karimov and Tajik President Imomali Rahmon.
"The creation of a regional water and energy consortium is not the best idea," said an analyst in Dushanbe who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It may lead to further economic friction. . . . Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would hardly wish to share their future incomes from electricity exports with their neighbors."
Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia project director for the International Crisis Group told EurasiaNet.org: "The idea of a consortium is laudable, but the track record for regional cooperation is very poor. There are few if any precedents of regional leaders coming together, certainly for any length of time, on any issue - and certainly not one that is so divisive as water."
"At this stage in the region's development, we are not only having to deal with major political differences, but deep-seated personal ones. This has proven as disruptive, and sometimes even more so, than political issues," Quinn-Judge added.
Putting together a water consortium could prove even more difficult than building consensus on the need for hydropower projects, said Parviz Mullojanov, an independent political analyst in Dushanbe. "The creation of a consortium would help resolve Rogun's financial problems, but the process of creating such an entity might take ages," Mullojanov said.
Konstantin Parshin is a Dushanbe-based journalist.