Uzbekistan & Tajikistan
Nils van der Vegte
April 17, 2012
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Without a mediator, the Tajik-Uzbek conflict could lead to another civil war in Tajikistan and to a serious destabilization of the whole of Central Asia. For Russia, this means it has to urgently develop a new strategy.

The relations between Dushanbe and Tashkent have worsened considerably lately and both countries are on the brink of open conflict as a result of this. Uzbekistan, knowing that Tajikistan is completely dependent on it has completely cut off the country from gas and transport. Tashkent claims that the blockade is purely economic: the Tajiks do not pay for the transit of gas and it is therefore more profitable to sell gas to the Chinese.

But Tajikistan sees clear political motives for the move “The Uzbek leadership is continuing its policy of confrontation and the use of economic, transport and communication instruments to force the Tajik leadership to take decisions favourable to them” a statement of the Tajik government said. Both parties have been unable to come to an agreement so both parties are looking at Russia to mediate.

Indeed, Russia possesses the necessary instruments to pressure both parties to the conflict, especially Tajikistan. According to some reports, Russia is responsible for 50% of the GDP of Tajikistan. More than a million Tajiks are working in Russia and in 2011 they send more than three billion dollars home (Uzbeks in Russia transferred 4.2 billion to Uzbekistan but the share of “Russian” money in the Uzbek economy is not as high as in Tajikistan). However, Russia is in no hurry to interfere. Moscow has not yet determined its priorities in Central Asia and the Kremlin has no desire to clearly support one of the parties (who are both openly conducting anti-Russian policies). But Russia will have to intervene soon because as a result of the Russian passivity other candidates are offering to mediate in the conflict. And all these mediators will resolve the conflict with their own interests in mind.

Gone off the rails….

Since 1991, the relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe have always been strained and cannot even be called friendly. For example, there is no regular air traffic between the two countries and there is little economic cooperation. Over the first half of 2011, the share of Uzbekistan in the foreign trade statistics of Tajikistan was only 2%. On a whole, the total value of the trade between the two countries was 29 million dollars of which 20 million was used to buy gas from Uzbekistan (because without Uzbek gas, Tajikistan cannot live: 95% of its gas supplies come from Tashkent). And in 2001, in clear violation of the CIS agreements, Uzbekistan introduced a visa regime for Tajikistan.

However, since the end of 2009, the relationship has gradually become more openly hostile. At a glance it seems that Tashkent has taken on a number of seemingly unwarranted acts of aggression.

First of all, Uzbekistan, taking advantage of the fact that Tajikistan depends on it as a window to the outside world, (the mountainous border areas of Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and China makes it almost impossible to transport goods) limited the amount of traffic/transport to Dushanbe. Between November 2009 and February 2010, the Uzbek railways stopped about 400 wagons of goods destined to Tajkistan, between February and June this number rose to 2000. Soon, this railroad war entered a new phase. In November 2011, after an explosion at the Galaba Amuzang line, the Uzbek authorities blocked all rail traffic on this line. Since this line connected the entire south of Tajikistan with the outside world, this meant a complete transport blockade in the region. Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev justified the decision by stating that the railroad was too old and did not posses the necessary capacity. It looks like the Uzbek side is not going to repair that particular railroad (and declined help from the Tajik government to do it together) and has even taken steps to dismantle it completely. Thus, Uzbekistan is not only trying to cut off part of Tajikistan from the outside world but also prevents them to use its geographical position in an economic way (the Tajik are trying to use their geographical position to help NATO to transport troops to Northern Afghanistan).

The Transport blockade of Tajikistan is not limited to railroads and the southern part of the country. In mid-January, Tashkent, under the pretext of repairs, closed 9 of the 16 checkpoints on the border with Tajikistan. As a result, the north of Tajikistan, which used to buy quite some agricultural products from Uzbekistan, is suffering from blockade as well. Local traders are forced to switch to the Kyrgyz market but the instability in this country does increase the reliability of the trade.

And then, they cut off the gas

But the biggest blow to Tajikistan was delivered on the first April, when Uzbekistan completely stopped deliveries of natural gas to Tajikistan. Formally, the Uzbek side was entitled to such a move. According to the contract Tashkent would deliver 200 million cubic meters of gas to Dushanbe in 2012 but only the first 45 million cubic meters were guaranteed. The rest, 155 million cubic meters, required “further confirmation”. And whilst the Tajiks are regularly offering to hold negotiations, the Uzbeks keep refusing. That is why, on the first of April Uzbekneftegaz announced: “the obligations entered between our two entities are fully met and therefore various custom-made insinuations about the cessation of gas supplies to the Republic of Tajikistan have no basis”.

The gas blockade has not brought many changes to the population: they did not use gas in the first place. But the Tajik industry has suffered a fatal blow which might by fatal. The Tajik aluminium plant (which brings in 75% of the total foreign exchange earnings of the republic, and the largest primary aluminium producer in Central- and South Asia which also is, according to some sources one of the main non-drug revenue sources of the Tajik elites and President Emomali Rahmon) works only on 20% of its capacity. And then only because Dushanbe has been using its gas reserves. To maintain 100% capacity, the plant needs 40-45 million cubic meters of gas per year and if supplies from Uzbekistan will not be renewed the plant simply may stop working and starting it up again would be very difficult. “The process must be going on non-stop, if there is no gas supply for sixteen hours, the aluminium will simply cool down, to restart it again, we will need two hundred thousand dollars and for the complete restart of the entire production cycle we will need more than three years and may cost as much as 500 million dollars” a statement of the press service of the plant said. If the plant is forced to shut down, it might cause 40 other plants and power stations to stop working.

The authorities are trying to find alternative ways to solve the problems and avoid a economic catastrophe. According to some reports, the plant is trying to replace gas by coal (which is produced on-site). Despite the claim that the plant has succeeded in doing this, it is highly unlikely that Tajikistan can continue on that way. Unfortunately, there are no alternatives to Uzbek gas largely because of the Uzbekistan’s geographical position. For example, when Turkmenistan offered to sell its gas to Tajikistan, the Uzbeks refused to let Turkmen gas flow through its pipelines. “In connection with the structure of the Turkmen and Uzbek pipeline system, there is no possibility to separate Turkmen gas from Uzbek gas”, Shavkat Mirziyayev said. Another reason is that the debt of the Tajik energy company “Barki Tojik” vis-à-vis Uzbekenergo is more than two million dollars and about half of that money is payment for the previous transit.

Energy egoism

In Tashkent, sources say that such a display of force is the only way to make Tajikistan take Uzbek interests into account in their domestic and foreign policy. The primary concern of Tashkent is the construction of the so-called Rogun hydropower plant. For Uzbekistan the Rogun dam could have serious economic, social and even defensive implications, which are simply ignored by the Tajiks.

The construction of the hydropower plant will lead to a significant decrease of the water level in the Amu Darya and could seriously damage the cotton sector in Uzbekistan. Cotton is not only one of the major export commodities of the republic but it also provides much of the work to the people in the country (about 75% of Uzbekistan’s population live in rural areas). Therefore, the lack of water in the Amy Darya could lead to poverty, riots and, accordingly, might develop into a threat for the authorities. In addition, the Rogun plant is situated near the seismically dangerous Ilyaksko-Vakhsh fault, where earthquakes on a level 9 ore more have periodically occurred. If the hydro plant gets destroyed in the course of the next earthquake, it could lead to waves of at least hundred meters with a speed of 130 meters per second, these waves will “destroy all the other hydro plants in the Vakhsh cascade, flooding dozens of towns and villages in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, causing unprecedented technological and environment disasters in the whole of Central Asia”.

The Tajik president responded that without the Rogun plant, Tajikistan is not able to survive. “We want our neighbours to understand that a country such as Tajikistan, devoid of large oil and gas reserves, is facing great challenges due to the lack of electricity and heating in winter and the only way to solve this is to build a hydropower plant on the cross-sections of our inland rivers” Emomali Rahmon said. Every year during autumn and winter, Tajikistan is experiencing power shortages of about 3 billion kWh. Rogun will generate 13.1 billion kWh per year, this is not only enough to provide electricity to the whole of Tajikistan but also allows the country to export energy to neighbouring countries.

Tashkent has suggested different ways to solve the problem. For example, Uzbekistan has a great place to build a smaller hydroelectric plant in the upper part of the Panj river. Semen Bagdasarov, an export on Central Asia and a member of the “Fair Russia” party told Ekspert: “Tajikistan has experience with these small, local hydroelectric power plants as they have build manu of ehse in the Gordno-Badakhsan region which provide the local population with energy”. Another option proposed by the Uzbeks is constructing a new power plant on the border, which would operate on Uzbek gas.

But Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan, has brushed aside all the compromises; largely because the real question is not so much the economy. This Tajik president, like any dictator of a small country, has a morbid tendency to implement large-scale projects to demonstrate the greatness of his personality. For example, last year, Rahmon opened the world’s highest flagpole in Dushanbe (with a height of 165 meters, the local population immediately started calling it the skewer). The flag on that pole is literally hanging because there is almost no wind in Dushanbe. In addition, with the help of Qatar, Tajikistan is building the largest mosque in Central Asia, which could accommodate up to 140 thousand people (2% of the country’s population). The construction of the world’s highest dam at 335 meters should be the crown of this policy megalomania.

In the shadow of Tashkent

The construction of the Rogun hydroplant is also viewed by the Tajik elite as the only way to protect itself from Uzbek ambitions. It is no secret that contemporary Uzbekistan is the most powerful country in Central Asia. Its population numbers almost 30 million people, almost 40% of the population of the region. The Uzbek army (largely thanks to the inheritance of the arsenals of the Turkestan Military District after the collapse of the Soviet Union) is the most powerful in the region. In terms of GDP it comes in second only after Kazakhstan. President Islam Karimov has been actively attracting foreign capital. Therefore, “Uzbekistan believes it should dominate Central Asia, especially Tajikistan, which for a long time was part of the Emirate of Bukhara, where Uzbeks played a dominant role” says Semyon Bagdasarov. Rakhmon does not want to obey to the dictates of Tashkent. Because Uzbekistan has almost complete superiority over Dushanbe, Rakhmonov is looking for a way to pressure Tashkent: control over water resources. Up to fifty percent of the Central Asian glaciers is located on the territory of Tajikistan and 60% of all water resources in the region. That is why Rahmon will do anything to finish the Rogun project (that is why it is no coincidence that the budget for its construction consists of more than 200 million dollars, a huge sum for a small country, it is almost four percent of its GDP). Rogun is not the only project, Tajikistan also plans to construct to big hydroplants on the Vakhsh and Panj rivers. These projects allow Dushanbe to control the volume of water in the Amu Darya and influence the policies of both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Perhaps the fears of Uzbek regional hegemony would not be as strong if there were not serious territorial and Negotiations in February on de demarcation and delimitation of the border ended in vain because, according to Tajik officials, “Tashkent is trying to secure control over the Farkhad reservoir on the Syrdarya River” and that is viewed as an attempt to “to annex territory of the sovereign state of Tajikistan”. The hydropower plant in this area was leased to Tashkent in 1933 for forty years but Uzbekistan has still not returned it. Additionally, Dushanbe demands that Uzbekistan should not only return the Farkhad hydropower plant but also the “native Tajik cities” of Samarkand and Bukhara.

Karimov has no love for ungrateful people

Such situations are usually resolved by negotiations, but in these regions there are no diplomatic mechanisms to solve disputes and problems between independent countries. And leaders in this region, who are accustomed to do whatever they want in their own country, have no desire to make concessions to the neighbours. This goes especially for the relationship between Islam Karimov and Emomali Rakhmonov as there are “serious problems of a personal nature”, Semen Bagdasarov says. “When, during the Civil War the question of who was to become the head of the Supreme Council of Tajikistan was debated, it was first of all discussed with Uzbekistan. Without the consent of Tashkent, Rakhmon would never have become the head of country. The Uzbek leadership had hoped that after the civil war, Uzbekistan would keep its dominant position in Tajikistan but after Rakhmov was appointed he tried to lessen the influence of Uzbekistan and clinched with Karimov. A consequence of this was that in 1994 Tashkent backed his rival, Abdumalik Abdulladzhanov”. Tensions eventually peaked, with both leaders supporting the armed position in their neighbouring states: Uzbekistan accuses Tajikistan of supporting the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whilst Dushanbe is furious that Uzbekistan is sheltering the former Minister of Defence of Tajikistan, Colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdiev, who organized a rebellion in the Kurgan-Tube region. Since the end of 1999, armed groups from Uzbekistan and Tajiksten have often invaded each other’s territory.

According to one source, Karimov has long been dreaming of overthrowing the “ungrateful” Rahmon and the introduction of the energy blockade might well be the next step. Analysts have estimated that if the gas transit will not be renewed, up to half a million people could end up without work, a disaster for a republic which numbers seven million people. “The purpose of these actions is to foster social tension and to stimulate growing discontent amongst the population towards the government of Tajikistan”, a statement of the Tajik authorities said. If people take to the streets, local politicians do not exclude the fact that Rahmon’s regime could collapse. “In our country, which has experienced a civil war, the beginning of new protests and revolutions may threaten the very existence of the Tajik state” the leader of the National Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Rakhmatillo Zoirov, told Ekspert.

Blackmailing the bodyguard

For now, the clear winner of the Uzbek-Tajik conflict is Tashkent. Uzbekistan is not only able to destabilize the situation in Tajikistan but could also stop the construction of the Rogun plant. After all the “Tajikcement” plant, which produced up to 95% of the cement of the Republic (up to 600 tons per day), ran on Uzbek gas. “We have stocks of cement but it will not last long, maybe two or three months”, says the Chief Engineer of “Tajikcement”, Zalil Kurbonmamadov. Tajiks want to convert it to run on coal but this takes time, 5 million euros and experts from China.

In this situation, the Tajik authorities see no other option but to ask help from Russia. It is no accident that the toughest statements with regard to the “Uzbek aggressors” did not come from the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs but from the Tajik Embassy in Moscow

On the one hand, the Kremlin is not helping Tajikistan. Rahmon has long showed himself to be a anti-Russian politician who does not shun away to “milk” Moscow for more money or concessions (The case of the recent arrests of Russian pilots who were released from custody only when the drug dealing cousin of the Tajik president in Russia was released as well is one such example). Despite the current conflict, Dushanbe is asking for a very specific form of help: the Russian base in Tajikistan will depend on the extent of help it receives from Russia (currently, the Tajiks are demanding 308 million dollars per year from Russia as rent). Yet, Rahmon needs this Russian base as much as Russia needs it. “First of all, the base is strongly associated with Rahmon’s position, if his position is under attack, he will receive support from there. In addition, the base greatly decreases the likelihood of an Uzbek military invasion but instead of showing is gratitude, Rahmon is trying to blackmail his bodyguard”, Semen Bagdasarov says.

On the other hand, the Kremlin knows that it cannot afford to look away. Not only because it is a (military) conflict between two members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which will put Russia in a very awkward position. But if Moscow continues to stay passive, Tajikistan might offer other candidates like Iran, China and the United States to reassert their power in the region.

Unwanted Pretenders

“Iran is increasing its influence in the Herat Region in Afghanistan and is trying to create a transport corridor that would link Iran and the Tajik areas of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. There is an idea developing in the region that Iran is the elder brother, Afghanistan the middle brother and Tajikistan the younger brother. And Rahmon supports this idea” claims Semen Bagdasarov. “Thanks to the willingness of Rahmon, Mahmoud Ahmaninejad has already stated its full support for Tajikistan in its dispute with Tashkent and has even expressed its willingness to assist financially. It is not only about the supply of fuel and a tactical investment of 1.5 billion dollars. On March the 24th, the leaders of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan agreed to construct a pipeline (as well a railway, power lines and even water pipes) from Iran through Afghanistan to Tajikistan. The Iranian part of the pipeline is ready but construction in the Heart region in Afghanistan (financed by the Islamic Development Bank) is about to begin.

The Chinese are also involved in the conflict as Chinese companies are dominating the Tajik economy. Semen Bagdasarov states that “Chinese workers are actively working in the region of Gorno-Badakhshan and not long ago it was announced that the Tajik authorities had given fertile land on lease to Chinese agricultural companies”. However, Chinese political activity in Tajikistan (as elsewhere in Central Asia), until recently, has been limited. According to some political analysts in Beijing and Moscow, there is a certain gentleman’s agreement in that Beijing respects the Russian sphere of influence and limits its political presence in the region in exchange for the fact that Moscow provides the necessary stability for China in Central Asia (which allows China to freely drain the region of hydrocarbon resources). But now the Uzbek-Tajik conflict undermines this stability and taking into account Moscow’s passivity, China may consider this agreement violated.

However, American mediation would be the most dangerous. The USA is going to mediate in the conflict to strengthen its position in both countries and to create military bases there. There is a high probability that American troops, who are going to move out of Afghanistan, will relocate to Uzbekistan in Tajikistan. Firstly, it will help the US to control the north of Afghanistan and secondly, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will provide the US with a physical presence in Central Asia to conduct special operations in Iran and China. According to some sources, the topic of military bases was raised during multiple visits to Tashkent and Dushanbe by the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. If we do not want US bases in countries which are our (Russia’s) main sources of drugs and religious extremists, we will have to seek a solution to the conflict between Emomali Sharipovich Rahmon and Islam Abduganievich