Uzbekistan makes friendlier gestures towards Tajikistan?

07/09/2014 13:55
Asia-Plus
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DUSHANBE, September 7, 2014, Asia-Plus – The September 3 article of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) titled “Uzbekistan Being Nicer to Tajik Neighbors?” notes that after a prolonged period of coldness, Uzbekistan has been making friendlier gestures towards neighboring Tajikistan.

President Islam Karimov is expected in the Tajik capital Dushanbe next week on what will be his first visit in six years.

However, commentators reportedly suspect the conciliatory signs are really about Uzbekistan trying to position itself as a regional player and keep two external powers – Russia and China – on side.  They see little immediate prospect of a thaw in Uzbek-Tajik ties because the issues that divide the two states are too complex to be easily unraveled, the article says.

Shokirjon Hokimov, deputy head of the Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan, told IWPR that while Karimov’s visit was not part of official bilateral diplomacy, it offered a route to reengagement.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon noted in his message congratulating Uzbekistan on its Independence Day that Tajikistan will make every effort to achieve better relations and greater cooperation with Uzbekistan.

The article notes that the main current area of dispute is the giant Roghun hydroelectric scheme, which Tajikistan plans to complete in the hope of solving chronic electricity shortages at a stroke.  Uzbekistan fears that the dam would retain large volumes of water that would normally flow down the Amu Darya river and irrigate its fields, only to release it in winter to generate more electricity, thereby causing flooding.

According to the article, none of the experts interviewed by IWPR is expecting a breakthrough in Dushanbe.

At the same time, experts reportedly believe incremental change is possible in Uzbekistan’s attitude towards its neighbor as a by-product of its bigger aim of working with Moscow and Beijing, both of which are engaged in Tajikistan.

Both these major powers are keen for the Central Asian states to get on with one another.  China is a major investor in transport and energy projects across the region, and is Uzbekistan’s second-biggest trading partner after Russia.

Russia continues to regard Central Asia as its own sphere of interest.

The article says that an analyst from Uzbekistan but now living in Kazakhstan who asked to remain anonymous agreed that Karimov’s presence at the SCO summit would be mainly for China’s benefit.

The same expert underlined the pragmatic side of Uzbek policy, given that it has already made it clear it is willing to increase fruit and vegetable exports in response to an invitation from Russia.

At the beginning of August, Russia introduced a ban on food and other products from Western countries in retaliation for economic sanctions. Agriculture minister Nikolai Fyodorov named Uzbekistan and Tajikistan among countries that could become alternative sources of fruit and vegetables.

Shuhrat Ghaniyev, head of the Humanitarian and Legal Center in Bukhara, agrees that the more conciliatory attitude to Tajikistan might reflect calculations about Russia, but he believes it stems from pragmatic foreign policy-making in Tashkent rather than a nudge from Moscow.

Uzbekistan has not backed Moscow on Ukraine, and Ghaniyev suggested that being nicer to Tajikistan might be an indirect way of correcting the balance.

Ghaniyev said the Uzbek government realized it would be a mistake to swing too far towards the West, as it might need to call on Moscow in the event of an Islamic militant threat emanating from Afghanistan, where most NATO forces are leaving this year.

The Uzbek government was quick to issue a denial after reports that a new American airbase at Termez on the Afghan border was discussed when the chief of United States Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, visited the country on July 30.  The story drew a strong reaction in Moscow, where a
member of the parliamentary committee that deals with former Soviet states, Ilya Drozdov, proposed deporting the large numbers of Uzbek labor migrants in retaliation.

The US had an airbase at Karshi-Khanabad until 2005, when Uzbekistan closed it because of US criticism of mass shootings of demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan.

Azhdar Kurtov, a Central Asia expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, argues that Uzbekistan is not influenced by outside forces – “there is no hand of Moscow” – but rather by pragmatic self-interest.  He argues that Karimov has realized that with Tajikistan, “neither side has gained the upper hand in their endless conflicts.”

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