BACKGROUND: Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been invariably tense since the two countries gained independence in 1991. Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s by far most populous national republic, was in Soviet times considered a regional leader, having benefited territorially from border modifications during the 1920s. The densely populated Fergana Valley, which is historically shared among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, still contains ethnic enclaves that have often become the epicenter of violent clashes over contested territory and scarce water resources. While the enclave issue mostly concerns Kyrgyzstan’s difficult relations with its Uzbek and Tajik neighbors, the situation in the Tajik enclave of Sarvak in Uzbekistan’s Namangan province has also been a source of recurrent tensions.
Less than a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan unilaterally cancelled direct flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe. In 1999, it further began to mine parts of its border with Tajikistan – officially in response to recent cross-border attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist group. According to media accounts, eight Tajiks, including a 15-year-old girl, from the Sarvak enclave whose total population has never exceeded 500, died from land mine explosions between 1999 and 2005 while six others were seriously wounded. In 2001, the Uzbek government introduced visas for Tajik citizens, granting only a limited number of exemptions regarding requests for visa-free travel in order to bury dead relatives.
Yet the most significant dents in bilateral relations have so far been caused by unfriendly economic measures as Uzbekistan has willingly pursued a so-called beggar-thy-neighbor policy vis-a-vis the impoverished Tajikistan. In 2008, Tashkent began to selectively seize rail cargoes bound for southern Tajikistan and subsequently imposed sharp increases in the transit fees for a wide range of goods, including staple foods and construction materials. In early 2012, it even halted rail communication between Amuzang and Khatlon in Tajikistan, pointing to a purported terrorist attack against the railway the previous November. The Tajik government and local journalists said, however, that this was likely a pretext for discontinuing the transit of goods and services amid the growing controversy over Dushanbe’s plans to build the Rogun Dam on the Vakhsh River, a tributary of the Amu Darya.
Uzbekistan’s actions also extended to the suspension of cross-border electricity sales in 2009, after it exited the Central Asian United Energy System (UES). Three years later, in 2012, it suspended natural gas supplies to Tajikistan, which are yet to resume. Several Tajik enterprises, including the TALCO aluminum plant and Tajikcement, have thereby suffered considerable losses and a shortfall in output. Overall, since the mid-2000s tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have resulted in a sharp reduction of trade: from slightly more than US$ 230 million in 2008 to US$ 160 million last year.
IMPLICATIONS: The groundwork for the ongoing détente between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan was laid during Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s visit to Dushanbe in September 2014 to attend the 14th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). He had previously visited the Tajik capital in August 2008, also within the framework of SCO diplomacy, after which the two presidents met only occasionally on the margins of several other summits. While their meeting last September did not lead to any major breakthrough in the deadlocked relations, it has since been regarded as the starting point of a renewed dialogue aimed at mending fences and reaching a durable compromise on a number of sensitive topics.
In January 2015, the Tajik side reportedly sent a note to Uzbekistan suggesting the resumption of direct air communication between their capitals and the delivery of visas to travelers at border crossings. Another possible improvement mentioned in the document would permit Uzbek and Tajik nationals to travel visa-free up to one month. Visa restrictions still remain a vivid illustration of the mutual distrust in Central Asia as many if not most post-Soviet countries, which are now part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), have enforced visa-free regulations with regard to other CIS members. It was initially planned that direct flights would resume at the end of March, but talks have been ongoing ever since to set mutually acceptable airport fees and sort out other financial and technical modalities.
As far as Uzbek-Tajik economic relations are concerned, the recent meeting of the intergovernmental commission in Dushanbe was dedicated, among other things, to discussing the possibility of renewing bus shuttles as well as electricity and natural gas sales to Tajikistan. Uzbekistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, one of President Karimov’s closest confidants, said Tashkent was ready to supply cars, buses and trucks, agricultural equipment, chemicals and other products. He further added that all those goods could be sold at discount rates due to lower rail tariffs, which have yet to be separately negotiated with the competent Tajik authorities.
Following the entry into force on January 1, 2015, of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus – joined the next day by Armenia and soon to include Kyrgyzstan – both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan remain outside any CIS-based integration blocs. The Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc) cofounded by Dushanbe in 2001 and including Uzbekistan as a member between 2006 and 2008, was dissolved last October to give way to the EEU. Meanwhile, no Central Asian economic cooperation organization has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union, given the lack of trust among the region’s newly independent states.
Security is another area where Dushanbe and Tashkent would be better off cooperating than continuing to break lances. The Islamic State is currently considered, not without reason, to be the most formidable radical organization in the wider Middle East and Central Asia, with several hundred Uzbeks and Tajiks presumably fighting within its ranks. In late April 2015, the heads of both countries’ border guards met for the first time ever in Khujand, the capital of Tajikistan’s northern Sughd province, pledging to jointly patrol the state border with a view to making it less susceptible of penetration by foreign radical elements.
On June 4-6, Uzbekistan’s Interior Minister, Lieutenant General Adkham Akhmedbayev, met in Dushanbe with his counterparts from the SCO in what was the first visit by an Uzbek minister of internal affairs to Tajikistan since 1998. It seems that the complicated regional environment is likely to make the Uzbek-Tajik rapprochement in security matters even more rapid and productive than the one on trade and economic issues.
CONCLUSIONS: Despite the early signs of a détente, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are still worlds apart on their biggest bilateral controversy – the issue of water resource management in Central Asia. Last November, Karimov visited Kazakhstan where he once again criticized Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s hydropower generation plans. Uzbekistan fears that the construction of major dams in the upstream countries could deprive its strategic cotton industry of the water resources it requires. As long as Dushanbe continues to view the Rogun Dam project as a national priority and is willing to commit funds to its implementation, the easing of tensions with Tashkent will likely fall short of a full-scale rapprochement.
AUTHOR’S BIO: George Voloshin is an international affairs expert widely published on issues related to Eurasian politics, with a special focus on Central Asia.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Boris Ajeganov