The public relations tussle over Tajikistan's ambitious Rogun dam project has now shifted to Europe, where politicians are being unwittingly dragged into the war of words with Uzbekistan.
Tashkent's vehement opposition to Rogun is no secret. The Uzbek government argues that construction of the hydropower plant will deprive it of irrigation water for valuable cotton and vegetable crops. It also says that building such a large dam is tempting fate in a seismically active region.
It is one thing saying that kind of thing oneself, but quite another if one can get an international expert or politician to sign up to the opinion.
And so, enter German European Parliament member Elisabeth Jeggle.
As quoted by regional portal CA-News and several Uzbek news outlets (via Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry), Jeggle took a decidedly anti-Rogun stance while speaking with a group of Uzbek environmentalists in Brussels on November 29.
"Instead of planning large-scale projects, Tajikistan should pay more attention to the upgrading of water and energy infrastructures, so as to avoid loss of water at the expense of neighboring countries, and fully implement alternative environmentally friendly projects without infringing the rights and interests of states in the region," CA-News quotes Jeggle as saying.
A pretty candid slap-down, one might think, but Tajik media is now gleefully reporting that Jeggle has taken exception to how her remarks were reported.
Citing unnamed sources, the Avesta news portal says Jeggle’s position on Rogun was distorted and that she had in fact made the point that it was important to wait on the findings of the World Bank feasibility report currently in progress.
Avesta also cites the source as noting that Jeggle was disappointed that her views on Rogun have been misquoted by Uzbekistan for the second time this year.
Tajikistan has not been above adopting an elastic style of reporting foreign views on Rogun to make them appear resoundingly favorable, however.
In September, the Khovar state news agency breathlessly headlined a story based on a press conference with the World Bank’s Director of Strategy and Operations in Europe and Central Asia, Theodore Ahlers, with “The World Bank is not against construction of Rogun.”
Reading through, one learns, surprise, that Ahlers is suspending judgment till publication of the feasibility report.
Likewise, Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry distributed a briefing note to local media in July describing a supposed talk by British MEP Struan Stevenson at a conference on Rogun organized by the European Parliament. Notably, Stevenson was quoted as saying that the controversy surrounding Rogun was “without scientific merit and based purely on political considerations.”
While the comments may have been reportedly accurately, there was in fact no conference, and he spoke at a small gathering with Tajik government officials, according to European Parliament sources. That’s pretty thin gruel to be feasting on, but at this stage Tajikistan is grasping onto any validation it can find. (Stevenson is a dedicated apologist for President Emomali Rakhmon’s lackluster political reforms.)
What all these and other foreign observers would almost certainly agree on is that regional cooperation is of paramount importance for the proper and efficient use of water resources across Central Asia. Instead, the finest minds in the region seem more busy indulging in mutual accusations and hyping non-existent expert opinions.