Security Assistance and Water Conflict in Central Asia

Last week, Tajikistan’s government hosted a high-level international water conference. Along with the platitudes that such conferences usually provide, the Tajikistan event was noteworthy for the participation of Uzbekistan. It wasn’t the boilerplate diplomatic language (in Russian) used by Uzbekistan’s delegate to the conference, the deputy minister for agriculture and water, that drew attention, but the simple fact that he was in Tajikistan, effectively enemy territory for water issues.

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are currently embroiled in a conflict over the former’s plans to build what would be the world’s tallest dam. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon believes that the dam, on the Vakhsh River near the small town of Rogun, is the solution to the myriad of problems Tajikistan faces today. The country is chronically energy-deficient, with frequent electricity shortages during its bitterly cold winters. It is also the poorest country in the former Soviet Union. The Rogun Dam and its associated hydropower plant, however, could generate both enough electricity to provide for its population and enough excess to export to Pakistan, Afghanistan, or China.

But the water that flows through the Vakhsh eventually ends up in neighboring Uzbekistan and is essential for irrigating that country’s cotton fields. And Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov believes that Tajikistan will use the dam as a means of leverage to pressure Uzbekistan in the many political disputes between the two countries. Karimov has gone so far as to threaten war if Tajikistan goes ahead with the dam project.

The dam has become the sharpest point of conflict in what has been an increasingly contentious relationship between the two neighbors. Uzbekistan has cut off rail communications, mined the border and increased import duties, in what Tajikistan’s government calls a de facto blockade. The dispute has historic roots, as well: the ancient Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, which Tajiks consider to be the jewels of their heritage, were given by the Soviets to the Uzbek SSR, and today they remain in independent Uzbekistan. And in one infamous meeting with journalists (which was supposed to be off the record), Rahmon vowed that “we will take Bukhara and Samarkand” – and that they would do it using Rogun.

The threat of war over Rogun is likely not serious. But it has contributed to the intractability of the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan conflict. “While a violent escalation of the tensions between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is improbable in the foreseeable future, embitterment prevents the rivals from finding solutions to problems that take into account the interests and needs of both sides,” wrote Volker Jacoby, a Central Asia expert and former diplomat, writing in a Central Asia Policy Brief (PDF). “The strained relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan finds its expression in a number of issues—all of them intertwined, but none of them insurmountable. What connects them is the fabric of a narrative of threat and competition.”

That sense of threat and competition also has been heightened by the rival security cooperation programs in Central Asia. The United States has been increasing its security assistance to Uzbekistan, providing equipment including body armor, night vision equipment, GPS systems and drones. (While the U.S. has attempted to stay out of the Rogun dispute and rarely comments on it, some remarks by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 seemed to suggest that Washington took a dim view of the project.) The amount of assistance is still small, but it has been noted with alarm by the country’s neighbors – in addition to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan also have frosty relations with Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, Russia’s own security assistance programs have focused heavily on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; Tajikistan is slated to get air defense upgrades and repairs to current equipment. A report in Kazakhstan’s Tengrinews (in Russian) argued, “close relations between Uzbekistan and the U.S. can lead to conflict in Central Asia.” In the piece, Russian political analyst Alexander Sobyanin said, “Uzbekistan is ambitiously becoming the economic and military giant of the region, and that means that for Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, peaceful life has ended.”

Work on the Rogun dam has been largely suspended pending the completion of a World Bank feasibility study, the results of which should determine whether any international funder will put forward the necessary investment to complete the project, which is projected to cost between $2 and $6 billion. That long-delayed study is slated to be released by the end of this year.

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