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Home / Politics / Uzbekistan-Tajikistan: A Long Road to Strategic Pa...

Uzbekistan-Tajikistan: A Long Road to Strategic Partnership

Farhod Tolipov, director of nongovernmental analytical center Caravan of Knowledge, believes that two important events took place this year in the relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. “On 9-10 March 2018, the President Shavkat Mirziyoyev paid a state visit to Tajikistan. Thus he completed, so to speak, the first cycle in a series of trips to the neighboring nations in Central Asia. That came to be a manifestation of the new foreign policy course of the President. Proceeding from that visit it can be said that “the ice began to melt” in the relations of these two countries. And on 17-18 August 2018, the Tajik President Emomali Rahmon made his first state visit to Uzbekistan for the entire period of independence. Finally, the two leaders inked the long-awaited Strategic Partnership Treaty. From then on, Uzbekistan is surrounded by strategic partners in Central Asia.”

– There are two countries in Central Asia, whose relations in the post-Soviet period remained the thorniest, controversial and were trapped in a condition of, as analysts say, “neither war nor peace”. It was Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. What was the cause of that state of affairs?

- Scores of factors influenced their bilateral relations since the early 1990s until recently. They included the incompleteness of the delimitation of borders; establishment of a severe visa regime between the two states; nationalistic sentiments towards each other; historical claims for Samarkand and Bukhara; construction of the Rogun HPP in the highlands of Tajikistan; political and personal differences between the two presidents, Islam Karimov and Emomali Rahmon, among others.

As a result, bilateral trade hit the lowest point: it dropped to less than $ 1 million; air communication between the two capitals – Tashkent and Dushanbe – was discontinued; cargo transportation by rail and motor road from Tajikistan through the territory of Uzbekistan was blocked; bilateral relations were even more aggravated after the incursion of terrorist groups from Tajikistan into southern Uzbekistan in August 2000, when Tashkent sharply accused Dushanbe of inability to prevent this invasion. The drama associated with the Rogun hydroelectric station was probably the most difficult stumbling block in the confrontation between Tashkent and Dushanbe.

Uzbekistan pursued, it can be said, a policy of prestige towards this country, and Tajikistan – a policy of survival; both policies were unconstructive, since both Tashkent and Dushanbe lacked a preventive, systemic approach to problems based on goodwill and the ‘win-win’ principle, both were committed to a one-sided strategy.

This state of affairs was overshadowed not only by bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but also negatively affected intraregional relations in general. Paradoxically, at the same time, the history and destinies of the Uzbek and Tajik peoples are so intertwined and interconnected over the centuries that during the state visit to Dushanbe in June 2000, the first President of Uzbekistan stated that Tajiks and Uzbeks are one people speaking in two languages.

However, over time, these two seeming antagonists could not ignore the explicit and implicit laws of regional evolution in Central Asia, that is, the fact that the peoples and countries of the region are more interdependent than it may seem and more unified than divided. And in the end they realized that they should not cross the red line in the process of growing tension between the two states and took the first steps away from the dangerous trend.

– When was it that the two sides understood that they were standing by the red line and that it is essential to change some things?

– In the early periods of the last year of Karimov’s rule, in 2016, the two sides began discussing the issue of easing the visa regime and resuming air traffic between the two capitals. This problem was identified by both presidents as a priority, which should be addressed urgently. These were the first signs of rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
In September 2016, the Tajik side resumed its efforts in building Rogun. The Uzbek side did not resort to the previous methods of critical reaction due to the fact that Shavkat Mirziyoyev focused on the policy of ‘soft power’ in the whole region, including vis-à-vis Tajikistan.

Between Mirziyoyev’s state visit to Tajikistan in March 2018 and Rahmon’s state visit to Uzbekistan in August, that is, for almost half a year, a number of breakthrough events took place: simplification of the visa regime; restoration of transport communications between the two countries; establishment of cooperation between the National University of Tajikistan and the Samarkand State University. More than a million people crossed the Uzbek-Tajik border this year. It was announced that in the short term the volume of bilateral trade will reach $ 500 million with further growth of trade to the level of 1 billion; this decision symbolizes a major shift in bilateral relations, as well as the availability of real potential for extensive trade and economic interaction between the two nations.

Back in March 2018, the defense ministries of the two states agreed on cooperation and reached an agreement in the field of transit of military cargo and servicemen through their territories. In sign of the continuation of cooperation, joint tactical exercises of the border forces were launched in August, just at the time of the summit meeting, at the junction of the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

During Rahmon’s recent visit to Tashkent, 27 agreements were signed in such areas as industrial production, standardization and certification, border crossing, recognition of documents on education, geodesy and geology, agriculture, culture and others. Both leaders, however, delicately avoided the most sensitive problem of the Rogun, but they announced that the two states decided to jointly build two hydroelectric power stations on the Zarafshan River. Rahmon even said emotionally that Tajikistan will never leave Uzbekistan without water. Moreover, he stressed his readiness to provide Uzbekistan with drinking water from the high-altitude Lake Sarez, which boasts 17 cubic kilometers.

That was indeed a historic summit, the significance of which should be evaluated in a broader perspective.

– In one of your articles, you noted that the new strategic partnership between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will have strategic implications not only for these two nations, but for the entire Central Asian region. Can you deliberate on this?

- First, the very notions of the countries of the ‘upper reaches’ and ‘lower reaches’ of rivers, which seemed to be shared by the two countries over the problem of the Amudarya River, began to lose their relevance and categorical nature. These concepts were most often used as static categories for a rather simplified description of the negative status quo, and this approach, due to its dominance among analysts, unfortunately weakened the more positive dialectical approach to regional affairs. Now we see that the acute problem of water use, which used to hold the two states across “different sides of the barricade”, can be strategically revised on the basis of the ‘win-win’ principle.

Second, the joint military exercises of Uzbek and Tajik border guards, held for the first time in the history of these countries’ independence, and the cooperation of their military organizations in general underlined a common vision of security threats that may emanate from outside the region. The parties demonstrated a common will to jointly confront potential threats.
Third, Tajikistan was the last, not in importance but in sequence, of Tashkent’s efforts aimed at recreating a friendly cooperation environment in Central Asia. The effect of these endeavors is that Uzbekistan is now surrounded by strategic partners, thus refuting another myth, namely, that Tajikistan as a Farsi-speaking nation is supposed to remain aloof from deeper integration with the four Turkic-speaking peoples of the region. It is noteworthy that the Tajik President expressed his support for the forthcoming second consultation meeting of the Central Asian leaders due March 2019 in Tashkent.

In this respect, a special mention deserves the word ‘reset’, which was pronounced several times by presidents and media during the latest summit meeting. Thus, the Uzbek-Tajik reset, in fact, has become part of the overall reset of the entire Central Asian regional order.

Fourth, this meeting also has a geopolitical connotation. Obviously, Tashkent and Dushanbe reaffirmed that there is no reason for a great power to mediate in alleviating the tensions that arise between the states of Central Asia. Further consolidation of the five Central Asian states as a regional group will help the promotion of common regional interests in the international arena, especially given the sensitivity of this region to geopolitical turbulence.

- President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said after the talks that “we have no remaining problems with Tajikistan”. Does this indicate that all issues have found their solution?

- Two state visits – by Mirziyoyev to Dushanbe and by Rahmon to Tashkent – were sufficient to raise the level of bilateral relations to a strategic partnership, and the corresponding treaty laid the foundation for comprehensive cooperation, mutual trust and friendship of these neighboring states and fraternal peoples. A really long way has been passed from reciprocal distrust and tension to rapprochement and strategic partnership.

Thus, as you can see, owing to the efforts of President Mirziyoyev, the Central Asian region is reformatted. Tashkent’s policy confirms the fact that Uzbekistan is a key state in Central Asia, and the advancement or slowdown of regional integration depends critically on Uzbekistan.

In the wider network of various links and interactions among the Central Asian countries, the Uzbek-Tajik segment remained perhaps the most confused one. Now it is vital to build up the assets of strategic partnership.


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