Tajikistan is making visible progress toward what it calls an independent hydro-energy future. Downstream, Uzbekistan is fuming.
Mutual acrimony is prompting the two Central Asian neighbors to trade increasingly harsh accusations and blame each other for mounting commercial damage. The friction – which can be traced to competition over Central Asia’s water supplies – may end up further damaging Tajikistan’s already ailing economy.
In the most significant recent development for Tajikistan, President Imomali Rahmon and Iranian Energy Minister Majid Namjou attended a ceremony on November 28 to mark the start construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant, a project being funded in part by Iran. Together they set off an explosion that temporarily blocked the Vakhsh River, which Uzbek leaders say their country depends on for fresh water. Rahmon, meanwhile, insists Tajikistan’s hydropower projects will not have a significant impact on the region’s environmental balance or water supplies. "Tajikistan is one of the main sources of fresh clean water and ice in the world. Along with the other peoples in the region we have the right to use this environmental asset," the Tajik president said, in comments distributed by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.
Sangtuda-2 is not Tashkent’s foremost concern, however. In recent years, Uzbekistan has continuously complained about Tajik plans to build a massive hydropower plant upstream at Rogun. That project, as currently envisioned, is stoking fear in Tashkent about a vast reduction of water flowing into Uzbekistan, a resource needed to maintain the country’s all-important cotton sector.
Dushanbe has accused Uzbekistan of trying to undermine the Rogun project by imposing an effective rail blockade, holding up hundreds of Tajikistan-bound freight cars at the Uzbek border this year. Tajik officials have also complained about closed Uzbek border checkpoints along the heavily mined, 1,160-kilometer frontier. Tashkent denies the delays are intentional. At the same time, Uzbek leader Islam Karimov regularly asserts that Rogun’s construction would be economically and environmentally catastrophic for downstream countries.
Two days after the Sangtuda ceremony, Uzbekistan’s state gas distributor sent a letter to its Tajik counterpart saying that unless Tajikistan immediately repaid its $1.6 million debt, Uzbekistan would have no choice but to cut off Tajikistan’s gas supplies. The upstream country relies on Uzbekistan for up to 95 percent of its gas supplies.
While threats to shut off the gas supplies are nothing unusual, other recent events suggest bilateral relations are now hostage to a propaganda battle. It’s a struggle with alarming economic implications, especially for isolated Tajikistan.
On November 5, pointing to the rail delays, Tajik government officials announced that trade between the two countries had fallen almost 65 percent over the 2009 level for the same period. Two weeks later, on November 19, the chairman of the Uzbek State Committee on Environmental Protection, Narimon Umarov, claimed that Tajikistan’s prominent and energy-hungry TALCO aluminum plant had caused $282 million in “environmental damages” to neighboring districts in Uzbekistan, Russia’s Regnum news agency reported. Umarov also predicted that Rogun would inflict $17.8 billion in damage on Uzbekistan during its first five years of operation.
In a potentially more dangerous development, Uzbekistan unilaterally closed a border checkpoint November 1 between its Samarkand Province and the remote Zarafshan Valley in Tajikistan, effectively severing the region from the outside world for the winter months. (Mountain passes from the valley into the rest of Tajikistan are closed for months at a time due to snow). Several days before, according to Uzbek sources, Tajik officials unilaterally shut a major border crossing to truck traffic and filmed the event with the intent of “damaging Uzbekistan's international reputation and inflating the myth about the Uzbek-Tajik border's transport blockade before the international community," an Uzbek law enforcement official told Regnum.
Since May, Tajik officials have sought help from international mediation bodies to resolve the border crisis, to little avail. In mid-November, Nuriddin Shamsov, Tajikistan’s envoy to the OSCE, said; “The permanent railway blockade of Tajikistan keeps having its damaging impact on the socio-economic development of the country, and can entail negative consequences in terms of economic stability in the region.”
State-run Uzbek TV carried a report December 2 that accused Tajik government officials of spreading lies to damage “the friendship between the Uzbek and Tajik peoples.” The Tajik people are suffering from the “arbitrariness” of their leaders, the report asserted, though “their gradually escalating tricks cannot damage stability in the Republic of Uzbekistan, or our good relations with the friendly [Tajik] people.” Regarding the delays at the border, the report added somewhat ominously, “our state borders have always been open to people with good intentions."
Mindful of the escalating information war, Tajik Foreign Minister Khamrokhon Zarifi has called on Tajik officials and journalists to intensify efforts to promote and defend Tajikistan’s hydropower initiatives. “A diplomat is unable to conduct a dialogue unless he knows the exact number of water reservoirs in the upstream and downstream countries, the number of hydropower plants and the water quotas in each country,” local media quoted Zarifi as saying in October. The foreign minister also ordered his diplomats to counter Uzbek “propaganda.”
Some pundits suggest Dushanbe has much work to do if it wants to better project its message on the international stage. “Regardless of Tajikistan’s logical retorts of the Uzbek accusations, our voice remains unheard by the international community,” journalist Parvina Khamidova wrote in an October 28 commentary carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.