Relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are sinking over Dushanbe’s plans to construct the giant Rogun hydroelectric power plant. And of late, Tashkent has started directing some of its ire at a massive Tajik aluminum smelter, portraying it as an environmental nightmare.
Uzbek officials have based their vigorous opposition to Rogun on claims that its construction would be ecologically unsound and seismically unsafe. Some independent experts, meanwhile, contend that Tashkent’s chief fear is that Rogun might greatly diminish the amount of water available to Uzbekistan for its irrigation needs.
Officials in Dushanbe reject Uzbekistan’s protests as absurd, emphasizing that it is their sovereign right to go ahead with building the plant, which would enable Tajikistan to become a major electricity exporter. [For background see the EurasiaNet archive].
Of late, Uzbek media outlets have carried a bevy of reports on Tajikistan’s "environment-unfriendly" industrial sector. Other reports have pressed a claim that Tajik authorities intend to use water as an instrument of coercion in their dealings with regional neighbors.
Over the past month, Uzbek authorities have also sought to turn the Tajik aluminum plant, or Talco, into an issue. Talco, situated not far from the Uzbek border near the Tajik town of Tursonzoda, is one of the biggest industrial enterprises in Central Asia, and it is the chief source of foreign-currency revenue for the Tajik government.
Much of Tashkent’s opposition has been expressed in the form of public protests. Late March, for example, saw several rallies in Uzbekistan against Talco, including one in southern Surkhandarya Province, and another at Termez State University. According to a report distributed by the Regnum news agency, the Termez event was an "unsanctioned rally." But in a country where President Islam Karimov’s administration has free speech in a full nelson, many regional experts doubt that the protests would be allowed to proceed without government approval.
"What is most disappointing is that the Tajik government and the management of the aluminum plant absolutely do not care either about the population of Uzbekistan’s border districts, or their [own] people living near the Tajik aluminum plant, the waste of which affects human health," a protest representative said, Regnum reported on March 25. Talco "inevitably steps up the negative impact on nature and the state of the health of residents."
On March 29, protesting the plant’s negative ecological effects, about 200 Uzbek citizens picketed a passing trainload of Tajiks, returning home from Russia.
Tajik officials are dismissive of Tashkent’s complaints. "Rumors about harmful emissions from the Tajik aluminum company have no real grounds," Dushanbe’s Asia Plus news agency quoted Khursandqul Zikirov, the chairman of the Tajik Committee for Environmental Protection, as saying on April 19. Zikirov added that his agency closely monitors Uzbek metallurgical plants and cement factories operating near the Tajik border. "The analysis has shown that the negative impact of wastes from [Uzbek] industrial enterprises on the environment in northern Tajikistan exceeds the standard limit by one-third," he said.
In recent weeks, sensational rumors have swirled around on the Internet about Talco’s supposed intent to start uranium enrichment operations. An anonymous posting on the news portal Centrasia.ru on April 20 claimed that "Tajik and Iranian specialists jointly carry out rehabilitation and construction works, preparing to launch a new uranium enrichment facility [at Talco]." Talco representatives immediately denied the rumors.
"The yarn was [spun] by Uzbek ecologists against the plant; but the real purpose is to apply extreme political and social pressure on Tajikistan; and, in reality, this is related to Tajikistan’s plans on finishing the construction of Rogun," Mekhroj Sharipov, a political analyst, told Tajikistan’s Avesta news agency on April 20.
Helping to stoke mutual animosity, Amonullo Khukumatullo, a spokesman for Tajik Railways, told journalists on April 21 that Tashkent issued a secret decree on January 1 that instructed Uzbek officials to deliberately impede the transit of Tajik cargos across Uzbek territory. He did not explain how he had found out about the alleged Uzbek decree.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe.