UZBEKISTAN-TAJIKISTAN RELATIONS IN LIMBO
Bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have deteriorated significantly. In April 2012, Tajikistan’s Embassy in Moscow issued a harsh diplomatic demarche against Uzbekistan, blaming the country for attempting to establish a blockade of Tajikistan. Tashkent responded that it has no such intention. Given the long-lasting fragile relationship between these two Central Asian countries, chiefly over the construction of the Rogun Hydropower Station in Tajikistan, the recent demarche has the potential to cause severe geopolitical implications to the detriment of both countries. While it is frequently suggested that the deadlock can only be resolved through international mediation, solutions should preferably be found between the antagonists themselves.
BACKGROUND: After gaining independence in 1991, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan found themselves in two different camps within one region. Uzbekistan is a downstream country and Tajikistan an upstream country on the Amu-Darya River. The main division line between them has been the construction of the Rogun Hydropower station on Tajikistan’s territory, to which Uzbekistan has constantly been opposed. This opposition has caused continuous tension and diminished trust between the two states since the 1990s.
The first significant positive shift in the relationship followed the first state visit by Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov to Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe in 1999. However, terrorist attacks launched in Uzbekistan from Tajikistan’s territory soon caused new tensions. None of the regional organizations operating in Central Asia, including the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), the Euro-Asian Economic Community (EurAsEC), the CIS, and the SCO, have proven capable of providing a format for resolving the crisis between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Neither have international organizations such as the UN and the OSCE proven able to alleviate tensions.
Instead, the two states have been left to manage their differences themselves, according to the principle of a zero-sum-game. Dushanbe frequently condemns Tashkent for exerting pressure on Tajikistan in order to impose its will upon this smaller and weaker country. A recent culmination of tension took place in April, 2012, when Tajikistan’s Embassy in Moscow accused Uzbekistan of blockading railroads and cargo and gas supply to Tajikistan. The allegations were revoked by Uzbek authorities. Such demarche-and-response situations have become a characteristic feature of relations between these two countries since independence.
In such situations, many point to the necessity of great power mediation between the two states. However, mediation in itself appears to be inadequate when it comes to relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, especially since these relations are often personified in the animosity between the two presidents, Karimov versus Rahmon.
IMPLICATIONS: In April 2012, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov visited Dushanbe. On the eve of this visit, President Rahmon stated that Russia remains a strategic partner of Tajikistan, which had rejected the U.S. proposal to deploy a military installation at the Ayni airport.
Lavrov also discussed the new round of tensions between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with the Tajik President. Whether that discussion signaled a Russian offer to assist in mediation between the two states remains unclear. Nevertheless, some observers recalled the recurrent assertion that Moscow’s assistance is needed to resolve this protracted crisis, especially after Vladimir Putin’s new advent to the Kremlin. In this context, it has been proposed that a trilateral summit between Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan could help fixing the deadlock.
Dushanbe’s allegations that Uzbekistan is using its gas, railway, and transport levers to exert pressure on Tajikistan coincided with the beginning of the new Putin era in Russia. This suggests that Russia’s capability for power projection can again be tested in Central Asia’s geopolitical context. Hence, the prospect of Russian involvement is not understood simply as an instance of international mediation but as part of a larger strategy for reestablishing Russian positions in Central Asia.
It should be noted that during Moscow’s first attempt to mediate between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the issue of the Rogun project in 2010, it expressed the balanced position that the construction of the Rogun station should take into account interests of all sides. Nevertheless, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs then issued a critical note, accusing Russia of taking a pro-Uzbek position.
Dushanbe’s recent demarche against Tashkent demonstrates that these two Central Asian states have brought their relations to a deadlock and produced a situation of no war, no peace. Therefore, the principal question remains whether they are able to resolve this situation on their own or need great power (or international) mediation. In any case, it seems that the detention of cargo transportation, irregular gas deliveries, and the railroad blockade are issues which Russia can hardly help to regulate because these issues are clearly regional in nature and therefore bilateral.
Tajikistan is dependent on Uzbekistan to a significant degree, leading Tashkent to believe it can exert pressure on Dushanbe by using hard power. Dushanbe is eager to demonstrate its independence from Uzbekistan by pleading for Russian protection. However, given previous experiences, it is questionable whether Moscow can exert equal pressure on both sides. The recent Tajik demarche reveals that it is easy to appeal for great power mediation or protection but it is much more difficult to actually obtain such assistance, especially in the Central Asian geopolitical context.
Finally, neither side stands to gain much from the present deadlock. Uzbekistan’s power policies vis-à-vis Tajikistan does not yield it more power, while Tajikistan’s policy of independence vis-à-vis Uzbekistan does not yield it more independence.
CONCLUSIONS: Neither Uzbekistan, nor Tajikistan have so far shown any signs of pragmatism. These unconstructive approaches have placed the two countries in a deadlock which, if it is prolonged, will likely require foreign mediation in some form. However, given the susceptibility to geopolitical trends among Central Asian countries, it is possible that such a mission could produce negative results. Thus, from strategic point of view, Central Asian countries should learn to cope with their regional problems on their own.
The new wave of exacerbation in Tashkent’s relations with Dushanbe has underlined once again that Uzbekistan has failed to fulfill its potential for taking on a leading role in the region. Uzbekistan should be capable of devising a policy toward its closest neighbor based on mutual cooperation and benefit but has instead opted for a unilateralist strategy. The problems between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are of a technical nature and resolvable. However, if the two states fail to overcome the deadlock, this will not only be detrimental to their bilateral relations but will also have negative consequences for Central Asia as a region. If Uzbekistan is serious in its ambitions to assume a regional leadership role, it should work to achieve a rapprochement with Tajikistan on the highest political level.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Bilim Karvoni” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.