The cold war between two Central Asian rivals over water appears to have ended, potentially opening the region to international investment and increased integration.
Earlier this month, Uzbekistan dropped its opposition to the Rogun Dam, a Tajik hydroelectric power plant which had been a potential powder-keg in the region.
“Go ahead and build it, but we hold to certain guarantees in accordance with these conventions that have been signed by you,” Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov said in a televised appearance on July 5.
The renewed ties mark a starkly different policy to the one pursued by Mirziyoev’s predecessor Islam Karimov, who led the country to independence in 1991.
Karimov came to power in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989 and ruled its successor state, the Republic of Uzbekistan until his death in 2016. Karimov opposed the Rogun Dam and in a 2012 statement seemed to imply Tajikistan’s pursuit of the project could lead to war.
Uzbekistan, and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan, had long worried that reduced water flow in the Vakhsh River could impact Uzbekistan’s production of cotton, which it views as a strategic commodity.
The roots of Tajik-Uzbek tensions were deeper than the Vakhsh River and the Rogun Dam, and have their origins in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Tajik Civil war in the 1990s.
The conflict ultimately pitted forces loyal to Rahmon against various factions, of which the Islamists were the best organized. Rahmon turned to Russian advisors and Armenian mercenaries to support his cause while the opposition forces at one time received aid from the Taliban.
Burying the hatchet
“During his reign Karimov threatened to invade Tajikistan if it ever built the Rogun hydropower dam, alleging it would have a dramatic effect on water sources in Uzbekistan,” said Maximillian Hess of the AKE Group, a London-based political risk consultancy.
“[President] Mirziyoyev on the other hand is potentially interested in supporting Tajik hydropower projects and have had successful talks on renewing cross-border trade. Uzbekistan has dropped visa restrictions for Tajik citizens,” Hess told The Defense Post.
In the wake of Karimov’s death, Uzbekistan’s new President Shavkat Mirziyoev has consolidated power and pushed for a new opening with Tajikistan. Mirziyoev visited the Tajik capital Dushanbe in March, where he met with President Emomali Rahmon.
“Mirziyoev [visiting Tajikistan] is good for the atmosphere. Investors might only be vaguely be aware but they are profound issues and some of them are tied to water,” said Lord Frederick Ponsonby, a member of the U.K. House of Lords and former president of the British-Uzbek Society.
Counter-terrorism is another area of potential cooperation. Following the conclusion of the Tajik civil war, a group of veteran guerrillas formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in 1998 and began an insurgency against Karimov’s government, often seeking sanctuary in Tajikistan.
In response, Uzbekistan’s government decided to mine its border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, ostensibly to prevent infiltration by the IMU. Some 70 people were killed in the first five years after the minefield’s development – all of them civilians.
Uzbekistan occasionally launched cross-border operations into neighboring countries during its struggle against the IMU. In 2004, tensions flared again when an unusually strong wind apparently blew 23 Uzbek paratroopers into Tajikistan, one of whom had the misfortune of landing on a landmine during the accidental invasion and was hospitalized in Tajikistan.
Karimov pledged that year to de-mine the border but no action was taken until April this year when Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agreed to study and schedule border demining.
Peace in Afghanistan
Following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan the bulk of the IMU’s forces moved to Afghanistan and joined the Taliban in fighting American forces. Most of the IMU’s remaining members merged with Islamic State in 2015 but a breakaway faction continues to retain the IMU moniker. The return of foreign fighters remains a vital security concern across the entire region, and earlier this year Tajikistan pardoned more than 100 of its citizens who returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq.
This is one of the reasons that Uzbekistan hosted a major peace conference on Afghanistan in March. The Tashkent conference was one of the most ambitious efforts to end the conflict in Afghanistan.
“We have consistently said that people of Afghanistan must choose their own path to peace, we can only help them start the dialogue and the process,” said Alisher Shaykhov, Ambassador for the Republic of Uzbekistan to the United Kingdom.
Shaykov and Ponsonby spoke to The Defense Post on the sidelines of the FT U.K.-Uzbekistan Energy Forum in London. At the summit the United Kingdom agreed to invest £1.25 billion in Uzbekistan, showing confidence is increasing in the country which is an established natural gas producer.
At that event Uzbek officials stressed that stability in their troubled neighbor can only be achieved through long-term investment. Towards that end, Uzbekistan has pledged to develop an oil field in northern Afghanistan and remains interested in other investments in a frontier market often overlooked by other investors.
“Our people have been traders for centuries. Our great cities were once hubs of the Silk Road. We have had good relations with everyone and now we are returning to our traditional role,” Shaykhov said.