Fight over gas and water kindles Tajik-Uzbek rivalry

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DUSHANBE, TajikistanTajikistan and Uzbekistan are rankling Central Asia with a dispute over gas and water that highlights the longtime distrust and rivalry between the two former Soviet republics.

Tajik diplomats accused Uzbek officials of imposing an “economic blockade” after Uzbekistan’s state-owned gas company, Uztransgaz, halted exports to Tajikstan on April 1.

“The situation, if continued, will lead to further deterioration of living conditions for the people of Tajikistan and threaten to turn into a humanitarian catastrophe,” the diplomats said in a lengthy statement from the Tajik Embassy in Moscow.

They also accused Uzbekistan of trying to influence next year’s presidential election in Tajikistan, refusing to allow fuel transports from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan, and blowing up an Uzbek railway bridge that was a key transit route into Tajikistan.

Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev responded swiftly with a letter to his Tajik counterpart, Oqil Oqilov, calling the accusations “unfounded” and saying that transporting Turkmen gas into Tajikistan though Uzbek territory is not technically feasible.

The hostility reflects emergent feelings of dominance and dependence in a post-Soviet landscape, and, as everyday Tajiks note, a personal animosity between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who have ruled their countries since both gained independence in 1991.

“I think some of [the hostility] can be traced back to the Soviet Union when Moscow very much [encouraged] the notion of interdependence,” said Louise Taggart, a Eurasia intelligence analyst at the AKE risk management company in London.

“The Central Asian nations relied on each other very much for resources, supplies and transport,” she said. “When they become sovereign states, they become more vulnerable to each other’s policies.”

Water power

Uzbekistan is the sole exporter of natural gas to Tajikistan, whose state-owned cement plant slowed production shortly after the gas supply was cut off. Tajik officials say other industries are expected to suffer.

Uztransgaz claims it has insufficient resources to supply both its small Central Asian neighbor and its “main partner” in the region, China.

The gas issue adds to a growing list of Tajik-Uzbek disputes:

• In February, Uzbek officials met with their counterparts in the Tajik capital of Dushabe to discuss a 120-mile-long stretch of border territory that each country claims as its own.

• Meanwhile, Tajik officials say that hundreds of miles of the border are littered with landmines that Uzbekistan laid during the Tajik civil war from 1992 to 1997. Uzbek officials say the mined areas provide a buffer against “armed gangs” and “uncontrolled drug traffic” from Tajikistan.

But in recent years, the main focus of dispute as been Tajikistan’s plans for a giant hydropower plant that Uzbekistan says would disrupt water supplies and harm its agricultural production.

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