The president of Uzbekistan announced over the weekend that he is preparing to visit neighboring Tajikistan for a trip that could soothe one of the longest-standing sources of tension in the region.
Tajikistan remains the final and arguably most problematic piece of the puzzle in the “good neighbor” policy adopted by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has already visited the three other former Soviet Central Asian nations on fence-mending missions. His predecessor, Islam Karimov, who died in September 2016, typically disdained the development of close ties with neighboring countries, at a significant cost to the potential for regional trade.
Mirziyoyev told lawmakers in the Tashkent region on January 6 that important bilateral agreements would be signed during his visit. No dates have yet been provided, but the trip is likely imminent.
“We will sign many agreements on cooperation in the railway and energy spheres. We will also be considering many other issues,” he said.
Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov is scheduled to travel to Dushanbe on January 10-11 to lay the groundwork, according to a government source. News reports on Aripov’s visit allude to planned talks of trade and economic relations and the hastening of negotiations to resolve border delimitation disputes.
The low-intensity hostility that has prevailed between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for the past quarter-century is a stubborn legacy of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Where the former constituent republics formerly pooled resources in mutually advantageous fashion, independence injected an element of destructive rivalry. The headstrong personalities at the helm in the countries have compounded the problem. Karimov pursued a policy of isolationism and self-reliance for Uzbekistan that was harmful to his own country and neighbors alike. Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, has responded by pursuing grand infrastructure projects against the wishes of his more powerful neighbor.
Tajikistan’s gigantic Roghun hydroelectric dam project is both symptom and cause of this disaccord.
The idea of building the dam has been in the works since the 1970s, but construction has serially delayed because of war and economic factors. Construction picked up pace again in October 2016, when Rahmon personally oversaw the start to efforts to dam the flow of the Vakhsh River.
Uzbekistan had argued the dam could gravely disrupt the reliable flow of irrigation waters on which its large agricultural sector relies. Specialists in Tashkent also worry that major seismic activity could cause a rupture of the Roghun dam with catastrophic consequences for the entire region.
International scientists have concluded, however, that a convivial management of the region’s water resources could benefit all nations alike.
Uzbekistan has not notably softened its position on Roghun since Mirziyoyev became president, but it has avoided issuing intemperate notes of protest at reports of progress on the project, as happened previously.
The urgency with which Tajikistan has pursued Roghun stems from its chronic energy deficit, which is itself caused by Uzbekistan’s history of embargoes. Tashkent has impeded the transit of electricity from willing supplier like Turkmenistan and has refused to sell Tajikistan natural gas — leaving Dushanbe little choice but to pursue energy autonomy.
Allusions by Mirziyoyev to a deal on railway connections may relate to another case of petty logistical isolation imposed by Uzbekistan on Tajikistan. A mysterious explosion at a railway bridge east of the Uzbek city of Termez in November 2011 disabled a track used to deliver food and building supplies to the southern Tajik city of Qurghonteppa. The route, which was also used by Tajikistan to export cotton, was never restored.
Dialogue on addressing outstanding disputes over demarcation of the border resumed soon after Mirziyoyev came to power. In November 2016, a working group began reviewing solutions to definitively outlining the 10 percent of the 1,333-kilometer border still under discussion. The last time the sides had discussed the issue was in 2009. The only thing marking the borders in many locations are minefields, which have caused deaths and injuries to untold numbers of villagers residing in the area.
Uzbekistan has made substantial progress on similar problems with Kyrgyzstan. Mirziyoyev’s remarks suggest a similar breakthrough with Tajikistan may be in the offing.
Mirziyoyev was clear in his remarks that restoring ties would be no easy feat, however.
“We need to establish good mutual relations with all our relations,” he said on January 6. “But this takes time. To break ice that has been frozen over for 20 years is not easy.”
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