Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov's recent visit to Tajikistan, made in connection with a rare session of an inter-governmental commission, raises the possibility of a thaw in relations between the two Central Asian states, Tajik experts say. The ability of Dushanbe and Tashkent to address their many differences could have important implications for ongoing military operations in Afghanistan to contain the Taliban.
The commission session on February 19 marked the first bilateral, high-level contact between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in seven years. Despite that encouraging signal, doubt continues to hover over the future of Tajik-Uzbek relations. Skeptics point to the fact that participants failed to address some of the most intractable problems plaguing the two countries' relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, media access to the Tajik-Uzbek intergovernmental commission was restricted, and a post-meeting news conference was cancelled due to the abrupt departure of the Uzbek delegation.
The bilateral commission meeting followed Uzbek President Islam Karimov's surprise February 13 announcement that Tashkent was willing to reconsider its long opposition to the construction of the Rogun hydropower plants in upstream Tajikistan, provided that international auditors verified the viability of the project. Uzbekistan could even become an investor in Rogun and other upstream energy development schemes, he suggested. Dushanbe's Asia-Plus news agency characterized Karimov's comments as "sensational."
"In the event of positive outcomes in international water-environmental studies, Uzbekistan can participate in the construction of big hydropower plants in the neighboring countries, including in Tajikistan," Karimov told a cabinet meeting. At the same time, he emphasized that while every state had a sovereign right to build a power plant, "it is necessary to take into consideration ecological and water problems, which might emerge in the downstream countries."
On February 25, with Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Tashkent, Karimov repeated the essence of his new position.
Tajik officials are committed to building the 347-meter-tall Rogun dam and see the project as essential to resurrecting the country's crisis-plagued economy.
As recently as late January, Uzbekistan was working feverishly to block Rogun's construction. Karimov at that point appeared to score a diplomatic coup, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev endorsed the Uzbek position that large-scale, water-related projects in Central Asia should require the consent of all the states in the region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tashkent has long been wary that massive dam projects, such as Rogun, would limit the flow of water into Uzbekistan, thus endangering the country's crucial cotton crop.
The motive for Karimov's sudden shift in thinking remains vague. But circumstantial evidence points to a rapid change in geopolitical conditions, namely Russia's success in inducing Kyrgyzstan to close an American air base outside of Bishkek. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In what many experts see as a quid-pro-quo, Russia promised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to complete a Kyrgyz hydro-power project. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. With the Kremlin no longer supporting a de facto hydro-power project freeze in Central Asia, Karimov may well have decided to soften his own stance.
According to local media outlets, the February 19 Tajik-Uzbek meeting managed to agree on the issues of delimitation and demarcation of 97 percent of the two countries' 1,200 kilometer shared border. The parties also signed a protocol regarding the schedule of the Kairakkum water reservoir in northern Tajikistan. Under this agreement, Tajikistan will store and conserve water yearly until May 31 to aid the Uzbek growing season.
But the more protracted and emotional water and energy issues remained unresolved.
Independent political expert Parviz Mullojanov says the fact the visit occurred at all was a "very positive" step that could help defuse bilateral tension. While he is optimistic regarding future resolution of "secondary problems," such as the cancellation of the visa regime and resumption of air communication, he says the two countries have a long way to go before coming to terms on bigger issues. "It will be difficult to resolve the regional controversies, such as the trans-boundary water use and construction of hydropower plants," Mullojanov told EurasiaNet.
Another Dushanbe-based observer, Nuriddin Karshibaev, chairman of the National Association of Independent Media (NANSMIT), believes the key to improved relations is Tashkent's ability to readjust its regional ambitions. "On many occasions, especially when it concerns trans-boundary water, Uzbekistan referred to international treaties, interpreting these documents for its own benefit," Karshibaev said. "But the country (Uzbekistan) totally forgets about other legally binding international documents when it concerns export and transition of Tajik electricity."
While some fault the personal ambitions of the Uzbek and Tajik leaders -- rather than economic and political factors -- for tense bilateral relations, Mullojanov suggests a major factor is Uzbekistan's desire for influence. "Uzbekistan wants to be the number one in Central Asia, and it has contradictions and unresolved problems not only with Tajikistan," he said. "These problems will remain even if other leaders come to power."
Despite the tensions, Uzbekistan remains one of Tajikistan's most important trading partners, as Tajik deputy Prime Minister Murodali Alimardon acknowledged in his opening remarks. Bound by their common history, facing the global economic crisis, the two countries cannot afford confrontation, he said.
One factor that may be encouraging the restoration of trust and a collaborative mood is US efforts to establish a northern supply network to support military operations in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are participating in the network, and both have a vital interest in seeing it succeed, given that both states share long borders with strife-torn Afghanistan. Resupply efforts will require Dushanbe and Tashkent to cooperate. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
If Uzbekistan and Tajikistan continue to bicker, the hostility could end up hampering the United States' ability to deliver supplies to American forces fighting the Taliban.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe.