By Alexander Sodiqov (05/02/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Heated disputes over the allocation of energy and water have been the defining feature of relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over much of the last decade. Although the distrust between the two countries has deep historical roots, the present tensions revolve primarily around the Rogun Dam project. So far, both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been unwilling to discuss solutions that would be acceptable to both countries. Yet, without a compromise over Rogun, it is highly unlikely that the strained relations between the two neighboring states will go back to normal. Is compromise over the dam project possible?

BACKGROUND: The most contentious feature of the Rogun Dam that Tajikistan has been building since 2006 is its height. The 335-meter giant was designed by Soviet engineers in the 1970s to overtake Norak – also on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan – as the world’s highest dam. In addition to reflecting the overall Soviet obsession with larger-than-needed engineering projects, the massive dam made sense from a purely utilitarian perspective. It was designed to create a huge reservoir that would irrigate over three million hectares of land in downstream countries, particularly in Uzbekistan, and enable multi-year water storage and regulation for regional irrigation purposes. It was also designed to increase hydroelectricity generation and enable the construction of major industrial enterprises in Tajikistan. Although the construction began in 1982, the break-up of the Soviet Union prevented the project from completion.

Emerging from a devastating civil war and facing recurrent power shortages in the 2000s, Tajikistan has sought to utilize its primary resource – an enormous potential for hydropower production – to develop into a prosperous state. The Rogun Dam scheme became the cornerstone of the Tajik government’s ambitious economic development program. The dam has been promoted as a shortcut to energy independence and economic growth. If the dam is completed, it will enable Tajikistan to generate about 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This will not only help the country meet all of its domestic needs but will also make Tajikistan a net exporter of electricity. What experts in Dushanbe prefer not to mention is that the generation of this amount of electricity does not require a 335-meter high dam. By building the dam based on the original Soviet blueprint, Tajikistan seeks to be able to control the flow of the Vakhsh River, including for political purposes.

The construction of the mega-dam has been fiercely opposed by Tajikistan’s downstream neighbor, Uzbekistan. The Vakhsh River is a major tributary of the Amu Darya which feeds major irrigation canals in Uzbekistan. Tashkent argues that the formation of a giant reservoir behind the dam – which might take up to two decades to fill – will affect the flow of water to its cotton fields. The Uzbek authorities also claim that the massive dam will have an adverse environmental impact and induce higher scale earthquakes in an already seismically active area. At a more fundamental level, the government in Uzbekistan fears that an ability to control the flow of the Vakhsh River will give Tajikistan crucial geopolitical leverage in a region where Tashkent has long sought to be a leader.

In an attempt to force Tajikistan to give up the project, Uzbekistan has resorted to diplomatic and economic pressure. Tashkent has effectively dissuaded potential foreign investors, notably Russia and China, from taking on the Rogun Dam. Uzbekistan has also refused to allow the transit of Kyrgyz and Turkmen electricity through its power grid to Tajikistan, subjecting the country to crippling power outages in winters. In addition, Uzbekistan has blocked the transit of all rail freight into Tajikistan, affecting the delivery of fuel and food to the country. Finally, Uzbekistan has frequently halted natural gas delivery to Tajikistan, inflicting serious economic losses on its aluminum and cement industries.

IMPLICATIONS: Uzbekistan’s opposition to the Rogun Dam scheme has only strengthened the conviction in Tajikistan that the dam has to be constructed. Making use of a deep-seated anti-Uzbek sentiment within a large segment of society, the government in Dushanbe has couched the project in nationalist terms. For instance, in a televised address to the nation on January 5, 2010, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon referred to the construction of the dam as “our national idea” and a “battlefield” for “national pride and honor.” As a result, the mega-dam has evolved from a purely utilitarian project into a symbol of national pride and independence. Within the country, the dam project has become insulated from public criticism, and infrequent attempts to question the rationale for such a high dam are denounced as unpatriotic and anti-national. Discussions in social media and news forums demonstrate that for many people in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan’s disapproval of the Rogun dam has become an important motivation for supporting the construction of the dam.

In Uzbekistan the dam has also become a potent symbol, although with a very different meaning. The country’s authorities have mobilized state-owned media to present the Rogun project as an imminent source of threat to Uzbekistan’s agriculture and environment. A number of popular demonstrations against the dam project have been staged throughout the country, helping the authorities to diffuse a negative attitude towards the project among the population. Although it is very difficult to assess genuine public perceptions of the Rogun dam in Uzbekistan, heated discussions in social media indicate that at least for many young people in the country, opposition to the project has acquired an important nationalist and symbolic dimension.

Consequently, the Rogun debate is no longer primarily about the height of the dam or any other purely technical characteristics. For many people in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the disagreement is now about “national pride” and “national interests,” categories that are much less amenable to negotiation and reconciliation. Thus, the “symbolization” of the debate over Rogun has made the likelihood of a compromise between the two countries very low.

Another factor standing in the way of a possible compromise is the significant political capital the incumbent governments in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have invested in promoting and opposing the dam project respectively. In Tajikistan, Rahmon has been the most ardent supporter of the Rogun scheme. Over much of the last decade, the state propaganda apparatus has been building his image as a strong leader committed to completing the dam project despite international pressures. Rahmon has repeatedly claimed in televised meetings that Tajikistan will build the mega-dam “whatever it takes”. By embracing the expensive and long-lasting project, Rahmon has effectively provided his administration with an important and highly visible function to perform. The progress in the construction of the dam has therefore become an important measure of his personal success as the country’s leader and an important basis of his legitimacy.

In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov has repeatedly vowed to prevent the construction of the “dangerous” dam in the upstream country. As a result, the Uzbek government’s success or failure in slowing down the construction of the dam in Tajikistan – and ultimately in forcing Dushanbe to abandon the project – will have an important impact on the public perception of Karimov’s strength and ingenuity as a leader. Just like the construction of Rogun has become intertwined with the legitimacy of Rahmon’s regime in Tajikistan, the prevention of this construction has become tied to the legitimacy of Karimov’s presidency in Uzbekistan.

CONCLUSIONS: The World Bank has commissioned independent assessments of the potential social and environmental impacts of the Rogun Dam construction. The findings of these studies will become available by the end of 2012. A widely shared expectation within the international community has been that the assessments will serve as the basis for negotiations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the mega-dam project. However, it is important to understand that the disagreement between the two countries is not about technical characteristics of the dam or its potential social and environmental disruptions. The debate over the Rogun Dam has acquired an important symbolic dimension and has been tied to the legitimacy of political regimes in both countries, albeit in very different ways. Therefore, any serious attempt to convince the leaders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to negotiate and reconcile their positions regarding the dam project should begin with depoliticizing the debate.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Alexander Sodiqov taught at the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2009-2010. He is now an independent analyst, pursuing a PhD degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto.