Uzbek-Tajik dispute worsens as stakes grow

August 11, 2010, Martin Sieff

Uzbekistan's rail and road blockade of Tajikistan is now seven months old and it is getting tougher.

On August 1, Uzbekistan increased its customs duties, or export tariffs for trucks travelling to next-door neighbor Tajikistan, by 14 percent. It was the second customs boost this year, and another heavy blow for the already impoverished Tajik economy.

Since it was launched in January, the trade blockade has waxed and waned, but mostly it has waxed – or gotten tougher. The blockade makes a mockery of Central Asian integration and in the drought crisis could have grave consequences. Why is Uzbekistan doing it? And why are major nations like Russia, the United States and China allowing the Uzbeks to get away with it?

The only major nation that has really flexed its muscles on behalf of Tajikistan has been Iran. As analyst Konrad Mathesius, writing for from the Tajik capital Dushanbe, noted this week, Iran protested when Uzbekistan put a halt on letting construction supplies cross the border for another Tajik hydro project, the Sangtuda-2 dam.

It remains to be seen if that project will still be able to proceed after all, or whether the Uzbeks will simply pay lip service to the Iranian protest and then shrug it off.

The Uzbeks have systematically followed a policy of agreeing to international requests to tend the blockade and then ignoring them. The most recent such case is when they agreed to ease the blockade – the existence of which they have never officially admitted – at the informal meeting of more than 40 foreign ministers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) outside Almaty in Kazakhstan on July 16-17.

However, the Uzbeks correctly understood that the blockade was low on the list of priorities for the OSCE foreign ministers. Kazakhstan, the main economic power in Central Asia, shares Uzbekistan’s concern that the Roghun project could endanger water supplies in the region and in particular further imperil the shriveling and ecologically dead Aral Sea, which Kazakhstan wants to revive.

So after agreeing at the ministers’ meeting to end its blockade, Uzbekistan reinstituted another one less than one month later.

Russia prefers stable, authoritarian Uzbekistan to relatively more open and democratic and, therefore more unpredictable, Tajikistan. Its relations with Uzbekistan have been improving since President Karimov withdrew his previous objection to creating a Russian-led Rapid Reaction Force to give military teeth to the Russian-led, seven-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

China backs Uzbekistan enthusiastically. The Turkmenistan-to-China pipeline flows through Uzbekistan. It eventually will carry 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year to China’s energy-hungry industries.

China is also a major and growing customer for Uzbekistan’s own natural gas. And President Karimov knows he can count on Chinese support for his continued authoritarian policies in the face of U.S. and European Union criticism. So China won’t raise a finger for the Tajiks either.

The United States has periodically lectured Uzbekistan to lift the blockade and Western reports invariably claim that the blockade threatens to inconvenience supplies to the U.S. and NATO war in Afghanistan against the Taliban. But these reports are greatly exaggerated. The impact of the blockade on supplies for Western forces in Afghanistan is marginal. They are largely flown in by the U.S. Air Force.

But maintaining good relations with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and improving them with Uzbekistan, are far higher items on the U.S. agenda than helping the Tajiks.

As U.S. expert Martha Brill Alcott pointed out at a Center for Security and International Studies conference in Washington last month, the Obama administration has only paid a fitful, uneven interest to Central Asia at all. It has never developed any consistent or comprehensive strategy for the region. So the Uzbeks can remain confident they can shrug off any halfhearted and ineffectual U.S. pleas.

Geographical and economic issues drive the dispute. Tajikistan lacks the oil and natural gas resources in and around the Caspian Sea that the richer Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan enjoy. It is also woefully short of industry and cheap electricity.

The only natural resource easily convertible into electricity that Tajikistan enjoys is its rivers.

Tajikistan’s scientists and economists are still very much products of the Soviet era. Ecological issues are seldom taught or considered by its policymakers. The Soviet Union was hugely enthusiastic about building giant dams to create electricity throughout its history. That mindset still pervades policymakers in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. For them, the Roghun project that so angers the Uzbeks is a no-brainer.

But Uzbekistan remains heavily dependent on its cotton industry and cotton is a crop that is desperately hungry for water. Even in the best of times, diverting the waters of the region to feed Tajikistan’s power needs endangers Uzbekistan’s traditional signature crop. No wonder, then, that President Islam Karimov is furious.

The current drought in Central Asia, the worst in regional recorded modern history, has heated up the dispute further. The stakes are rising all the time for both nations. Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have insufficiently developed land transportation infrastructures.

That risk is far worse for Tajikistan than for Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan still has a competently functioning, highly centralized administration. Tajikistan’s government structure is far weaker.

Also, the longer those 1,200 railcars are held up on Uzbekistan’s side of the border, the longer they are prevented from shuttling grain supplies around Tajikistan if the drought crisis gets worse.

Mathesius reported on that through July, essential grains have risen in price steeply in Dushanbe’s Green Bazaar.

Fifty kilograms, or 110 pounds, of wheat flour cost $15 (65 somoni) in 2009. But now they have almost doubled in cost to $25 (110 somoni).

Though the United States, China and Russia have been largely able to avoid the growing Uzbek-Tajik crisis, they may have to take stronger stands as the stakes continue to grow.