The First Water War

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Central Asia’s Cold War?
WATER AND POLITICS IN UZBEK-TAJIK RELATIONS
PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 217 September 2012

Shairbek Juraev American University of Central Asia (Bishkek)

At the end of 2011, Louise Arbour, head of the International Crisis Group (ICG), listed Central Asia among the top ten crisis areas in the world and a region that has the potential to see war in 2012. This turned out nearly prophetic. Within several months, the already-troubled relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan drastically deteriorated, triggering such labels as “economic blockade”, “rail war,” and “cold war.” Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are the two most densely populated Central Asian states. They border Afghanistan and serve as key transit states for the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). Both states are ruled by unaccountable autocratic regimes that have not been willing or able to discuss pressing bilateral issues—energy, transportation, border disputes, and, most importantly, the management of water resources. Tension between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is heavily politicized and shows no sign of easing. Troubling Background Uzbekistan played an important role in determining the outcome of the devastating Tajik civil war in the mid-1990s. Uzbekistan, together with Russia, supported the People’s Front movement that propelled Emomali Rakhmon (then Rakhmonov) into the Tajik presidency. In the late 1990s, Tajikistan openly accused Uzbekistan of supporting Colonel Makhmud Khudoyberdyiev, a rebel who had earlier challenged Rakhmon’s regime. Tashkent vehemently rejected these accusations, although various news sources reported that Uzbek President Islam Karimov had supported the rebellious colonel, who ended up in Uzbekistan in 1998. The incursion of the militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) into southern Uzbekistan through the Uzbek-Tajik border in 2000 marked the beginning of 1

openly unfriendly relations. Uzbekistan accused Tajikistan of an inability to control militant activity on its territory and unilaterally put land mines along the disputed border areas. Although this action was apparently aimed at stopping the IMU from entering Uzbekistan, ordinary residents of the border area and their livestock were and continue to be the main victims of the mines. In the same year, the two states introduced a visa regime, complicating the already troubled linkages between the peoples of two states. The presence of sizeable groups of ethnic Uzbeks in Tajikistan and ethnic Tajiks in Uzbekistan remains an important hidden issue. While formally neither Dushanbe nor Tashkent have territorial claims on each other, in a scandalous interview in 2009 Tajik President Rakhmon openly stated that Tajikistan would one day return Bukhara and Samarkand, 1 referring to the two towns (and surrounding areas) of Uzbekistan that many in Tajikistan say represent Tajik culture and history and must be returned to Tajikistan. The most recent escalation of relations, labeled a “rail war,” took place when Uzbekistan began stopping freight railcars going to Tajikistan. In November 2011, Uzbekistan completely shut down the Termez–Kurgan Tyube line (between the Gabala and Amuzang stations) because of a terrorist act that destroyed rails on the UzbekistanAfghanistan border (Termez is a main hub of the NDN). The Tajik government immediately accused Tashkent of staging a blockade of southern Tajikistan, which heavily depends on this rail route for everyday goods. According to news agencies, hundreds of rail cars with food, construction materials, gasoline, and humanitarian aid were stuck on Uzbek territory. In March-April 2012, tensions increased as Uzbekistan began dismantling the Termez–Kurgan Tyube railroad instead of repairing it. Furthermore, in early April 2012, Uzbekistan, at short notice, suspended supplies of natural gas to Tajikistan, referring to the “completion of contract obligations” and the need to provide gas to China. Tajikistan,...
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