Tajikistan, Uzbekistan Flights Row Ends in Unlikely Bonhomie
When Uzbekistan suddenly decided this week to deny permission for an airline from Tajikistan to land in its capital, it might have been safe to expect an outcry.
Privately owned Somon Air was due to carry a couple dozen paying passengers for the February 20 flight to Tashkent — the first along this route in 25 years — when it learned permission had been revoked.
Tajikstan’s Asia-Plus reported on January 21 that Uzbek authorities fired off an incensed letter laying all the blame at the feet of the Tajiks.
The letter argued that Somon Air had filed a request to effect charter flights and not regular scheduled flights. It also claimed it only received the official paperwork authorizing the route on February 19, one day before the flight. That gave the insufficient time to adopt a decision, as the matter had to be considered by security services and air defense officials, the Uzbek letter stated.
And finally, the Uzbek authorities said Somon Air still had no branch office in Tashkent and that the sale of tickets was accordingly not possible.
This is high bunkum even by the normally lofty standards of Central Asian officialdom.
A date for the Somon Air maiden flight had been set weeks ago and widely advertised by media in both countries, which makes nonsense of the implication that Uzbek oversight bodies were somehow caught by surprise. As to the sale of tickets, Somon Air has a website through which that can be done, so even this is unconvincing grounds for rescinding permission to operate. In any event, it is unclear how Somon Air’s commercial strategy is supposed to be of any interest to Uzbek authorities.
Instead of standing its ground, however, Somon Air swiftly issued a groveling apology and fired its commercial director along with several other executives.
“The package of documents was not sent to Uzbekistan in time,” the airline plaintively admitted.
But as RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, has reported, citing Tajik deputy transportation minister Sherali Gandjalzoda, the cancellation of the flight appears to have been motivated mainly by unspecified security concerns.
“We received an official letter in which it was stated that the refusal was motivated by questions of security. But there is no elaboration on what is meant by this,” the deputy minister told Radio Ozodi.
Gandjalzoda added that formal permission for the flight had anyway been granted already on February 10, when Somon Air conducted a trial flight between Dushanbe and Tashkent.
There is clearly more to this situation than meets the eye.
The fired Somon Air commercial director, Alisher Rustamov, is an experienced aviation executive and had worked for the carrier for five years. The suggestion that he would have bungled basic paperwork for an international flight strains credulity, particularly given the politically sensitive and high-profile nature of the route. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have for decades been at daggers drawn over multiple vexed issues, including access to water and energy resources, so the reactivation of the flights was supposed to mark a significant breakthrough.
Sources in Tajikistan have described the entire flight cancellation episode as a diplomatic feint.
“[Uzbekistan’s national security services] were the ones to deny landing rights to the flight, but at the moment, nobody wants to strain ties with the neighbor. So, in order not to sour the relationship, the Tajiks have decided to take the blame,” a Tajik official familiar with the situation told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. “From the get-go, Uzbekistan was opposed to this route and they were the ones that set a $78 [airport tax] for each passenger.”
Now, both countries can claim a kind of symbolic diplomatic victory in having nominally restored flights, while not actually having to execute the flights, all the while blaming the status quo on incompetent executives.
Kamila Ibragimova is the pseudonym for a journalist in Tajikistan.