Dushanbe hosted a conference on water this week, attended by some 900 representatives from over 70 countries and organizations. Despite a heartening appearance by a delegation from Tajikistan’s archrival, Uzbekistan, the conference didn’t appear to do much to help end one of the region’s most pernicious conflicts.
Discussing water-related cooperation in Dushanbe seems like a good idea considering the long-running friction over water in the region. Upstream, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are planning giant hydropower dams to harness the potential of their mountain rivers. Downstream, agriculture-dependent Uzbekistan is vehemently opposed, using economic blockades to prevent Tajikistan proceeding. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has even suggested the projects – Rogun in Tajikistan and Kambara-Ata in Kyrgyzstan – could spark war.
So the biggest surprise is that Uzbekistan sent a delegation at all. Tashkent and Dushanbe hardly speak these days, largely thanks to the Rogun project, which, at a planned 335 meters, would be the tallest in the world.
The day before the High-Level International Conference on Water Cooperation opened, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon offered conciliatory remarks, insisting Rogun and other hydropower projects will be built "taking all the regional nations' interests into account." At his opening address on August 20, Rakhmon added, “Tajikistan has always been in favor of mutually beneficial cooperation and good neighborly relations,” his website quoted him as saying.
The Uzbek delegation was equally circumspect. Shavkat Hamroyev, deputy minister of agriculture and water resources, reiterated Tashkent’s position, insisting that countries must use water resources taking into consideration their neighbors’ interests.
Few had realistic hopes the two-day conference would help end the stalemate. The day before it began, Ajdar Kurtov at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies said Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were on a collision course with Uzbekistan. “The parties involved – namely, the upstream states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, versus the downstream states, Uzbekistan and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – are incapable of compromise; they hold irreconcilable positions, which usually leads to an escalation of conflict, and that, in turn, could very well develop into a violent conflict. Uzbekistan will continue to use all possible means to try to prevent the construction and launch of Rogun: If political and diplomatic measures don’t work, it will put on more economic pressure, while on the sidetrack, so to speak, there's clearly an armored train waiting,” Kurtov told CA-News.org.
A declaration written in sweeping diplomatese offered little in the way of concrete steps to resolve the conflict. We “reaffirm our commitment to water as a driver of development and means for promoting trust and cooperation,” participants pledged. Throughout the conference, there was, as usual, lots of talk about “mutually beneficial cooperation,” and about the need for children to have access to clean water, points cheered by a slew of mid-level visitors from developing nations.
One Tajik participant told EurasiaNet.org that the discussions were “very trivial” and included “endless empty statements. Loads of money is being spent talking, but it’s like déjà vu,” he said, comparing the conference to past meetings on the same topic.
Rakhmon likes to host conferences. Endlessly paraded on state television, they help him look important to his people and justify the construction of new palaces and meeting halls.
Indeed, Dushanbe is accustomed to such meetings, and the inevitable and inconvenient traffic jams they produce as authorities close streets and commandeer bureaucrats to assist. In 2009, for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a US Embassy cable published later by Wikileaks described the lengths Tajik officials go to to host a party: “Dushanbe has seen accelerated construction projects, park overhauls, painting of city streets, and a myriad of other face-lifts. The government is rushing to complete the $300 million … presidential ‘Palace of the Nation’ along with the central city park in front of it (yes, Tajikistan fans, that's about ten percent of the country's GDP for that palace),” the cable said. “Embassy local staff reported that security officers began going door-to-door in central Dushanbe a few weeks ago, questioning residents along the main avenues and advising them not to hang up laundry on balconies during the summit.”
This week’s conference allowed Rakhmon to appear repeatedly on television, only three months ahead of an election, looking like a statesman, reiterating that he’d like more foreign investment, for projects such as a high-power line to South Asia and a rail link with China. State television and his website busily reported on his meetings with high-level foreign dignitaries, such as president of the World Water Council Benedito Braga, the Bangladeshi minister of water resources, the environment minister from Qatar, and the prime minister of Mozambique, among others.
Rakhmon also met the prime minister of neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Jantoro Satybaldiyev. The two countries, which are both regularly bullied by Uzbekistan and thus natural allies (on this issue at least), reaffirmed they share the same view on hydropower construction. "The positions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on water and energy issues are identical," Satybaldiyev said at an August 20 meeting with his Tajik counterpart, Akil Akilov, KyrTAG reported.
Perhaps there were some fruitful meetings behind closed doors. That could bring much needed relief to the region – because it will take more than rosy-colored generalities to overcome a genuinely complicated post-Soviet problem exacerbated a thousand times over by the mistrust, personal antipathies and lack of transparency plaguing the Central Asian nations involved.