Kazakhstan's new foreign minister did some traveling in the region last week, visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in an apparent effort to get the two sides to talk about their dispute over the massive, controversial Rogun dam project. The United Nations has been trying to get Kazakhstan to play a leading role in resolving the issue between its neighbors to the south and when the foreign minister, Erlan Idrissov, spoke to the press in Dushanbe, he highlighted the Rogun issue:
"It's no secret that the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power plant is one of the important issues on the agenda. The Tajik president spoke during the meeting about his vision and approach to the construction of this facility. He suggested the importance of working together with the World Bank to conduct an independent examination of the construction of the power station," Idrisov said....
"The states in the upper waters should not violate the rights and economic interests of the states located in the lower waters and vice versa. There are international conventions according to which the two sides should sit at the negotiating table and work out a mutually acceptable scheme for the usage of water resources," Idrisov said.
Rogun, recall, is the hydroelectric project on which Tajikistan's president, Emomali Rahmon, has staked his country's future, believing it to be the key to solving the country's energy problems and giving it a valuable export commodity. But Rahmon's counterpart in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, just as strongly opposes the project, as it would disturb the water flow into his country, which needs the water for its cotton crops. Karimov has even gone as far as to threaten war over the dam. It's a tricky bit of diplomacy: not only are key strategic issues at play, but the two men reportedly also share a strong personal antipathy.
At a conference last week in Washington, Jan Harfst of the UN Development Project's Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS gave a presentation on water and conflict in Central Asia, and gave some insight into the international diplomacy being conducted in order to reduce tensions around Rogun. He noted that Uzbekistan's preferred mode of conducting its diplomacy bilaterally, rather than via multinational organizations, complicates the resolution of Central Asia's water conflicts, in which several countries are involved and which calls for a comprehensive solution. As a result, the UN is doing "shuttle diplomacy" between Uzbekistan and the other countries involved and is trying to get Kazakhstan to play a mediating role.
"Uzbekistan very much has its own agenda and its own approach, including dealing with its neighbors on a strictly bilateral basis, definitely not in a multilateral setting, which of course complicates the resolution of an issue that affects all the countries and needs a comprehensive solution. That's why the discussion very much gets concentrated on Rogun, whereas of course that is only one aspect of the whole situation," Harfst said at the conference.
Noting that the long-awaited World Bank feasibility study on the dam is scheduled to be released at the end of this year, Harfst said "this can really increase tensions in the region very quickly. So what's going on right now is shuttle diplomacy, with the UN and the World Bank working closely together not just with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan but with all the countries of the region, as well as China, as well as Russia, in order to try to decrease these tensions. One of the things that we've tried is to convince Kazakhstan to play a much more active role in mediating between the other countries." Harfst also noted that the UN is working on a new legal framework for water usage in the region, and has been able to bring Uzbekistan into that process. Will all this work to keep tensions over the dam in check?