The yawning, decades-long divide between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will get that little bit narrower next week when a senior Uzbek delegation travels to Dushanbe for talks on trade and economic cooperation.
The delegation will travel to Tajikistan on December 26 and be led by Uzbek deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov, whose recent removal as finance minister appears for now to signal his transition to a role as the lead on development of Uzbekistan’s external economic ties.
Talks will focus on reopening railway and road links that have now been closed for several years. At the heart of the historic disaccord is Tajikistan’s plan to build a giant hydropower dam that Uzbekistan could threaten its access to vital irrigation water. Tashkent has tried by multiple means — mainly by imposing a de facto transit embargo — to hinder progress on that dam and force Dushanbe to back down.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia Plus reported that the Uzbek-Tajik intergovernmental commission convening in Dushanbe will agree on the reopening of specific railway and road links, suggesting the talks may go beyond an rhetoric exchange of goodwill messages. The website cited unnamed Tajik government sources as saying the two sides will agree on the opening on new border crossings.
This comes on the heels of an announcement in November that flights are set to resume between the two countries in January for the first time in 24 years.
Other issues on the table are the softening of a mutual visa regime that has been in place since 2000. There are also plans afoot to cooperate in education by creating student exchange programs.
Next month, Uzbekistan plans to hold a major trade fair of its exports, including auto goods and food products, in Dushanbe. Once that event wraps up, business representatives from both countries are expected hold their first ever bilateral business forum.
Other than the Rogun hydropower dam, the most popular theory behind the parlous state of Uzbek-Tajik relations was that the poison flowed from personal enmity between the nation’s presidents — Uzbekistan’s late leader Islam Karimov and his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon.
The most colorful source of stories about the pair’s fallings-out is Rahmon himself, who in 2009 assembled his nation’s entire journalistic corps to share some gossip in a supposedly intimate, off-the-record chat.
Russian journalist Arkady Dubnov was the first to spill the beans.
Rahmon reportedly began by telling reporters that relations with Karimov had not always been so bad.
“We used to call him ‘otamiz’ (‘our father’ in Uzbek), but then a lot of stuff came to the surface. This man was fighting against the entire Tajik people … he doesn’t want the development of our nation, he blocks roads, cuts off our electricity during the winter,” Rahmon is cited as having said.
The Tajik leader was clearly puffing his chest here, trying to tap into the enduring sense of revanchist frustration stemming from the Bolshevik decision to cobble the historically Tajik cities of Samarkand and Bukhara onto the Uzbek SSR. Warming to his theme, Rahmon claimed he had even on occasion got into fisticuffs with Karimov.
“I argued with him many times. On two occasions I even scuffled [Rahmon used a different word that will not be used here for reasons of political correctness — Dubnov] with him. One time [Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan] Nazarbayev pulled us apart, the second time it was [former Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma. And I said to him: ‘Whatever happens, we will take Samarkand and Bukhara back!’” Rahmon is reported as having bragged.
(For the record, according to reporters present, the expression that Dubnov was too dainty to mention was “I grabbed him by the tie,” not itself very rude-sounding, except that the expression is suggestive of a euphemism for a part of the male anatomy.)
As it happens, it was around 2009 that things got truly bad.
That was the year Uzbekistan began impeding the progress of trains entering Tajikistan. In November 2011, after a purported terrorist blast on an eastward-bound railway line in southern Uzbekistan, Tashkent halted all traffic along the route. Researchers on the ground in Uzbekistan at the time told EurasiaNet.org there was little evidence the blast had in fact occurred at all, leading to suspicions Tashkent had concocted the entire story as an excuse to intensify its embargo.
And then in January 2013, Uzbekistan definitively stopped delivering natural gas to Tajikistan. Given that 95 percent of gas consumed by Tajikistan at the time came from Uzbekistan, the move predictable provoked palpable economic distress. Many industrial concerns, including the giant TALCO aluminum plant and the Tajik Cement Factory were forced in short order to switch from gas to coal.