Uzbek-Tajik ties blossom
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are rebuilding bilateral ties after decades of hostility in a process that could revitalise economic between the former Soviet states.
The cross-border railway between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan via Ghalaba and Amuzang on the River Amu Darya officially reopened this week. Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, during a visit to the Central Asian neighbour, and Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon pressed a button to relaunch the mothballed service.
The rail link closed in November 2011, when a bridge was damaged by an explosion which the Uzbekistan blamed on a terrorist attack. Relations between the two countries have been strained since the fall of the Soviet Union, but have significantly improved since Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016.
Former Uzbek strongman president Islam Karimov undermined bilateral ties by supporting one of the “losing sides” in Tajikistan’s civil war from 1992 to 1997 and demarcation of the shared border still remains incomplete.
Uzbekistan lined several portions of its frontier with thousands of landmines in the early 2000s.
Karimov visited Dushanbe twice during his presidency, in 2008 and 2014, but only for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meetings and not for a bilateral talks with Rahmon.
Mirziyoyev, on taking office, embarked on a new diplomatic approach with his first official visit abroad to Turkmenistan, the most isolated Central Asian state. Tajikistan was the only neighbour he had not visited, until this month’s excursion.
“Geopolitics is the main problem for the project. If Uzbekistan continues on its hardline opposition, its completion could be jeopardised,” an Italian diplomat source in the former Soviet states said.
During his visit, Mirziyoyev appeared to drop Tashkent’s ongoing objections to the construction of a large hydropower station near Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe.
Rahmon revived a Soviet-era project to build a dam in Rogun on the River Vakhsh. Karimov opposed the plan, saying the project could endanger the flow of water from the Pamir mountains to Uzbekistan’s vital cotton fields.
The informal all-clear that Mirziyoyev gave Rahmon regarding the Rogun dam and hydroelectric power station shows how much Tashkent’s diplomatic stance has changed. Uzbek opposition and funding concerns were viewed as the main obstacles to the project. Italy’s Salini Impregilo was awarded the US$3.9-billion contract for the power project.
Tashkent and Dushanbe are in talks to resume electricity exchanges more than a decade after the Soviet-era networks were disrupted. The Tajik state-owned utility Barqi Tojik said it would sell 1.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to Uzbek customers by September this year.
Seasonal shortages and limited fossil-fuel supplies have hindered domestic Tajik energy transmission. The opportunity to sell excess electricity during the summer to Uzbekistan and to import much-needed power during the winter months could finally give Tajikistan year-round energy security. The ability to export to power-hungry Uzbekistan could also improve the financial sustainability of the Rogun project.
When diesel is short, traditional modes of travel are available. Picture credit: Flickr