This summer, a 32-year-old musician with Uzbek citizenship was visiting her mother in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. For the last decade, the musician has lived in the Tajik capital Dushanbe with her husband, an ethnic Uzbek, and their 10-year-old daughter.
The visit coincided with Uzbek authorities’ decision to reintroduce exit visas for citizens traveling to Tajikistan. She thus became a virtual prisoner in Uzbekistan, a victim of acrimonious ties between the two long-time rivals.
“When I got to the border on my way back [to Dushanbe], border guards told me that I was missing an exit visa stamp in my passport. I had no clue what this was, but had to obey and returned to Samarkand,” the musician recalled. “I spent the next two weeks visiting the law enforcement agencies – from the district police station to the Interior Ministry and officials at the SNB [National Security Agency SNB]. I was harassed everywhere – one officer called me ‘a prostitute wishing to work in Tajikistan,’ another wondered why I have so many border stamps in my passport, hinting that I am involved in espionage.”
Accusations of passport violations are dangerous in Uzbekistan, a regime infamous for its opaque justice system. Eventually she gave up trying to get an exit visa for Tajikistan. Since one is not required for Uzbek citizens traveling to Russia, she bought an air ticket to Moscow and returned to Dushanbe via the Russian capital. (The musician spoke on condition of anonymity because her mother, whom she’s trying to get out, still lives in Uzbekistan).
Relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been worsening for years. When the Soviet Union fell apart, air connections ceased. In 2001, Uzbekistan began requiring Tajikistan’s citizens to obtain visas prior to arrival, and mined parts of the border, a practice that has resulted in hundreds of people being killed and maimed. In recent years, moreover, Uzbekistan has stepped up what its poorer neighbor calls a “blockade,” upping tariffs on goods transiting and often blocking rail shipments. Uzbekistan has increased cargo transit tariffs four times in the past two years. Of 16 border crossings, only two remain open.
The chief source of bilateral rancor is water. Tajik President Imomali Rahmon wants to build the world’s tallest hydropower station, Rogun. Downstream, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has vowed to do whatever necessary to stop the project. Karimov fears the dam will give Rahmon the ability to regulate water flows, and thus exert a measure of control over Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector, including the lucrative cotton crop.
Early last month, Karimov said his neighbors’ hydropower dreams could even lead to war. At the UN General Assembly on September 29, Tajikistan’s foreign minister, Hamrokhon Zarifi, said his country’s electricity shortages – which have been exacerbated since Uzbekistan pulled out of a Soviet-era regional energy grid – gave Dushanbe no choice but to pursue the hydropower project. Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov used the same platform to argue against the project.
As the spat drags on, it’s average people, like the Dushanbe musician, who suffer.
In April, seven out of the eight registered political parties in Tajikistan - all except the president’s own People’s Democratic Party - appealed to the two presidents, calling on them to negotiate. (The last time one president invited the other for a visit was in 2001, when the two embraced and declared themselves eternal friends). “The interests of society and the peoples must stand higher than personal and group interests and personal resentments,” said the parties’ statement. “Both presidents should meet halfway. Great people have always been able to forgive.”
More than one million ethnic Uzbeks are believed to live in Tajikistan; even more ethnic Tajiks live in Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s largest country by population. Many, especially those who were born of mixed marriages, grew up in a Soviet society believing that ethnic identity had little meaning. There are reports of harassment by authorities on both sides of the border.
In 2003, a well-known Tajik ecologist and journalist, Hamid Atakhanov, moved to Bukhara to care for his ailing wife – the two had lived there for many years during the Soviet era and have relatives there. After eight years, in 2011 he was suddenly accused by local authorities of inciting ethnic strife and deported back to Tajikistan. “They gave me no time even to say goodbye to my wife and neighbors,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Meanwhile, the Dushanbe musician is searching for ways to move her mother, a schoolteacher, to Dushanbe. Because the teacher has a daughter in Tajikistan, she suffers constant harassment from local authorities, the daughter says. At schools in Samarkand, principals instruct children to report on visitors from Tajikistan to the local police, making her and her mother (a hostess) automatically suspect.
“It sounds insane. Yes, they ask the kids to provide information about their families and neighbors visited by ‘strangers from the hostile country,’” the musician said.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.