By now everyone has no doubt heard of the Tajik government’s infamous program of “share selling” to finance the new hydro-electric dam Roghun. The Tajik people don’t seem to harbor any illusions that they won’t see any return on their investment. “I just bought an expensive piece of toilet paper” one friend quipped. Nor do most seem to have much confidence that an operational Roghun would help improve the country’s electricity situation. Instead they believe that IF (and it seems to be a pretty big if) Roghun is constructed the electricity it produces will most likely be exported to Afghanistan or other countries with a select few hire ups reaping the profits (which other countries would be sutible isn’t exactly clear but Pakistan is occasionally tossed around). Fears of unbalancing the environment or the security of the wider region are a bit too abstract for the average citizen to care about.
Strangely the prospect of angering Uzbekistan seems not to be a point of concern but rather a silver lining. Whether justified or not most Tajik’s seem to resent being held hostage to Uzbekistan for gas and electricity for the ostensible reason that they did nothing to deserve it other than having the good fortune to be on the right side of the border (in respects to infrastructure and natural resources) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now water, a commodity that Uzbekistan is dire need of to fuel its cotton production, is the great equalizer.
Uzbekistan is not taking the prospect of losing a large percentage of it’s water supply lying down. Recently they have appealed to the United Nations, disrupted electricity and gas flows, and prevented the passage of train freight into Tajikistan (specifically wagons carrying raw materials for both Roghun and the giant Talco aluminum plant in Rigar, but also everyday imports). For their part Tajikistan has floated the idea of building a new train connection to Turkmenistan through Afghanistan, but the plausibility of this (financially if not practically) should make calling Dushanbe’s bluff on this one easy enough.
However Uzbekistan’s bluster and bullying over the issue could have the effect of strengthening domestic support for the project in Tajikistan. Just a few months ago if you mentioned the word “Roghun” everyone would immediately fall into a discussion of how much they, their neighbors, the gypsy with one leg, etc. had to cough up. Of course this was accompanied by no shortage of grumbling and cynicism. Now, as the initial financial pain of “investing” subsides the commiseration is often supplanted by discussion of bi-lateral relations with Uzbekistan.
If Uzbekistan pushes too hard in the wrong ways it will consolidate support for a project that Tajik’s didn’t want in the first place.It would be wiser for Uzbekistan to air their grievances through international venues while at the same time courting the disaffection of work-a-day shareholders instead of driving them into the arms of the “Roghunite’s” with de-facto embargos and border restrictions that hurt their pocket books as much as share buying. At least Uzbekistan should hold its chips until the feasibility building the dam becomes clearer (to date not even half of the money required for the first phase of the dam has been collected.) Rahmon on the other hand seems savvy to the fact that a boogy man in Tashkent is a boon for him domestically.
Uzbek-Tajik border tension is nothing new. Grazing disputes, landmines, and strict visa regimes have been common place since the fall of the Soviet Union (further exacerbated by Tajikistan’s civil war and the sporatic incursion of insurgents). Now Tajiks who routinely cross the Uzbek border (excepting those who live in adjunct regions) do so with the help of their Russian foreign passports which can be bought for about 5,000$. Others have to pay inflated prices for their visas and are subject to the arbitrary whims of the border guards and customs officials. One Tajik friend was refused entry for 4 days without much of an explanation except some vague excuse relating to the observance of international woman’s day (of course she was a women, an irony that no doubt passed by the male border guard.) Another friend of mine who transports cement told me that the border has been unusually hard for the past 5-7 weeks and he is worried about his livelihood if the situation persists.
I crossed the border the other day without any problems however I couldn’t help noticing the differences between the border posts. The Uzbek side was equipped with declaration forms, computers, metal detector, an X-ray machine and, most importantly the electricity to run them. The Tajik side however, had nothing except a kerosene lamp whose flame was at the mercy of gusting winds. At one point while an 19 or 20 year old soldier was looking over my passport the flame was extinguished and I had to help him out with my ever ready flashlight. A poignant example of the disparities between the two countries. Uzbekistan may not be responsible for all (or any) of Tajikistan’s problems, but perceptions are some times more relevant than reality.