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Fight over gas and water kindles Tajik-Uzbek rivalry

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DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — Tajikistan 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.

"Uzbekistan has always said that it sees water as a common resource that Tajikistan shouldn't have a claim over," Ms. Taggart said.

She added that Uzbekistan also may be wary of Tajikistan becoming less reliant on Uzbek energy supplies and competing with its neighbor in the export market.

Construction on the Rogun hydropower plant began in 1976, but was neglected during the Tajik civil war.

In 2009, work began to restore the abandoned Soviet project, which would allow the 1,099-foot-tall Rogun dam to replace Tajikistan's Nurek Hydro-electric Station as the world's tallest dam.

"Forcing Tajikistan to give up construction of the Rogun project is the main goal of Uzbekistan," said Mukhabbat Saidova, a political scientist at Tajikistan Media Alliance, a union of journalists in Dushanbe.

'Heavyweight' referees

This is a widely held view in Tajikistan.

"If Dushanbe cannot agree with Tashkent [Uzbekistan's capital] on supplies of Uzbek gas or the transit of Turkmen gas, among the first to suffer will be Tajik Cement, whose products are used to construct the Rogun hydroelectric plant," said Ramzan Sharipov, a political analyst based in Dushanbe.

Tajik authorities dispute claims that the Rogun dam would be damaging to Uzbekistan.

The World Bank is conducting an ecological assessment of the project, and a report is expected this fall.

Ms. Saidova said it was no coincidence that Tajikistan's outrage over Uztransgaz's action was published on the website of Tajik Embassy in Moscow.

"Solving the problem mostly depends on the heavyweight countries in the region — on Russia and Kazakhstan, which have political and business interests in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan," she said.

A high-ranking Tajik official told The Washington Times that Russia and Kazakhstan would not allow the conflict to get out of hand.

"This is not the first of our conflicts with Uzbekistan, so we hope it will be solved in coming weeks," the official said on condition of anonymity. "We have set in motion all our connections with Russia and Kazakhstan, and the conflict will not grow into an economic catastrophe for Tajikistan."

Political scientists agreed.

"I think that soon we will move from a phase of open diplomatic conflict to the silent antipathy that both sides consider [normal]," said Alisher Saidov, a political scientist at the Strategic Research Center in Dushanbe.

Tajik citizens in Dushanbe, meanwhile, say they are tired of the bickering.

"Uzbeks are our brothers," said Mukhayo Qosimova, 37. "It's not good to leave us without [a] railway and gas. But this situation has been created by politicians and we, simple people, were and will be friends."

Still, many are committed to the Rogun dam project.

"We need Rogun," said Mirkhoja, a 70-year-old pensioner. "Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have gas and oil sources, but we have water sources, and we have the right to use them. We will not be broken by the farfetched arguments of Uzbeks."

Ruby Russell in Berlin contributed to this report.

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