BACKGROUND: In Central Asia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are up-stream countries where the region’s two major rivers originate – Sir-Darya (in Kyrgyzstan) and Amu-Darya (in Tajikistan). Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are down-stream countries. As is well known, the up-stream countries have pursued an energy strategy when it comes to the management of rivers water flows. They need to produce more electricity during the winter season; whereas downstream countries need water for irrigation in the summer season. The conflicting interests pursued until now by Central Asia’s upstream and downstream countries with respect to sharing the waters of these two rivers were expressed most acutely and aggressively in the relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the construction of the Rogun Hydro Power Station (HPS). Rogun became a stumbling block in the development of the overall relations between these two neighboring nations.
The construction of the Rogun HPS has for a quarter century been an ideological mantra for independent Tajikistan. This project was unilaterally decided by the Tajik government and, like a shrine, turned into a matter of national pride long before its real embodiment. For Uzbekistan, on the contrary, it became a geopolitical bogey. Tashkent has taken all possible direct and indirect measures to thwart Dushanbe’s endeavor on Rogun, including diplomatic pressure and threatening signals. Due to numerous political and public campaigns, Uzbekistan mobilized domestic public opinion against Tajikistan’s plans on building the HPS. Official representatives of Uzbekistan regularly raised this issue and promoted the state’s principal position in various international organizations – from the UN General Assembly and OSCE to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), calling for an objective international investigation of the project and its possible consequences.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, albeit strained, has been far from completely antagonistic. In essence, this problem is of a technical character and resolvable. The author of this article wrote some time ago that “if they fail to take steps towards each other, reconcile and overcome deadlock this will be detrimental not only to their bilateral relations but also have negative consequences for the whole region of Central Asia.”
Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov – the main opponent of the Rogun mega-project – died on 2 September 2016. In about two months after his death Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon personally launched the construction of the dam. This stirred speculations as to whether Karimov’s presence had been the only inhibitor of the Rogun construction, and whether the disappearance of that factor became a catalyst of this process.
IMPLICATIONS: Surprisingly, Tashkent has so far not officially reacted to Dushanbe’s unilateral action. On the surface, it seems that Tajikistan takes revenge and Uzbekistan loses face, as if the former won the strategic game and the latter appeared to be wrong in its quarter century long anti-Rogun policy.
The silence of post-Karimov Tashkent may seem tantamount to a green light to Dushanbe to start the construction of the dam. However, connecting Uzbek-Tajik tension on the dam issue only to Karimov’s personality would be a significant oversimplification. The consideration of objective national interests must not be ignored in this analysis; and obviously these include not only Tajikistan’s, but also Uzbekistan’s interests.
At least two principal aspects of this dramatic situation must be taken into account. First, the permanent question of the official thumbs-down position of the Uzbek side is not yet removed from the agenda; which is why the rush of the Tajik side regarding the launch of the dam cannot but cause bewilderment on different levels, including the expert community and civil society. The power transition in Uzbekistan does not affect objective material, geographical and climatic factors as well as consumer needs and irrigational interests of this country to which Tashkent has constantly pointed when expressing its position towards the Rogun HPS. These concerns have not yet been satisfied.
There are hypotheses that the Uzbek side has covertly been given assurances by the Tajik side regarding satisfaction of all concerns. If so, any agreements achieved between the two sides must be publicized, because Uzbekistan’s entire anti-Rogun stance was until recently broadly publicized and actively promoted. The negotiations and decisions made by Tashkent and Dushanbe on this highly galvanized and publicized issue can therefore no longer be kept secret or offstage.
Second, the issue of compliance with international conventions on trans-boundary rivers is also not removed from the agenda. Dushanbe’s unilateral actions in this case would have been justified only if the river on which the dam is supposed to be constructed was an internal river of Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has up until now sought to lift the problem from bilateral frameworks to the international stage, calling for an international investigation of the project. However, none of the attempts at engaging external legal entities, including great power mediation between Uzbekistan and Dushanbe, have so far proven to be mutually acceptable and efficient.
From this point of view, the question arises as to the implementation of the norms of international law regarding the Uzbek-Tajik water dispute. Moreover, this dispute per se, given the trans-boundary character of the river flow and the existence of international law in this sphere, probably should draw immediate international attention and reaction, which should not wait until one side of the dispute appeals to the international community for its resolution. The actual question in this context is whether the international community (the UN, for instance) can and should automatically react to any unilateral action on the part of one state affecting the trans-boundary river flow even as the other side in the dispute is silent (perhaps temporarily).
The “sudden” launch of the construction of the dam revealed, among other things, what can happen when the overall bilateral relations of two countries are over-personified, non-transparent, based on a narrow understanding of well-known national interests, and dependent on the political climate inside a particular country rather than on objective, material conditions of the regional reality.
CONCLUSIONS: It is timely to recall the “golden rule” of medical ethics “Primum nоn nocere!” (Do no harm!) when we discuss the post-Karimov reincarnation of the Rogun HPS construction, since none of the respective agenda items in Uzbekistan-Tajikistan relations related to this problem have yet been clarified. The would-be harmful consequences of this construction cannot be reduced or averted by the will of one leader or lack of will of another.
By and large, this issue is not merely a matter of bilateral relations. Uzbekistan under Karimov had managed to correlate the water policies of three down-stream countries in Central Asia vis-à-vis two up-stream countries. What will be the policy of post-Karimov Uzbekistan in terms of this correlation? But even this question is becoming obsolete. Today, the countries of the region should go beyond such simplistic and tactical reasoning. It becomes more and more obvious that the time has come to move from the “up-stream versus down-stream” division of Central Asia to a common vision of regional perspectives, implying common, not individual development; common, not individual sovereignty; common, not individual projects.
Particularly, the five countries concerned could return to the common regional integrated energy system as part of a new process towards revitalization of the frozen regional integration of Central Asia. Rationally speaking, despite the seeming unilateral approach to this issue by Tajik authorities, the launch of a construction process on such a scale necessitates a resolution of the question of mutual concessions and mutual gains. If so, the win-win outcome should not be a backroom deal because projects like Rogun are not a matter of lucrative interests of certain business circles or political classes, but a matter of common destiny of the respective nations and the entire region.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Knowledge Caravan” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons, accessed on December 8, 2016