Vienna, January 30 – The shortage of water in Central Asia and the way in which competition for it can increase tensions and complicate international relations there was highlighted last week when Uzbek President Islam Karimov asked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to put pressure on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to release more water to his republic.
Medvedev appeared to agree, apparently out of a desire to gain Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s commitment to send all of his country’s natural gas through Russia. But Medvedev’s comments, very different from what he had told the Tajiks last August infuriated Dushanbe and set off alarm bells in Bishkek as well.
And consequently, while the immediate policy question that was involved – completion of the Rogun hydroelectric dam – may have appeared small, the exchange between Karimov and Medvedev not only guarantees that tensions in the region and between countries there and Moscow will rise and that outside powers may gain an opening for influence as a result.
On January 23, during Medvedev’s visit to Tashkent, Karimov publicly called for Moscow “to influence Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the resolution of the water question,” a polite way of saying that Moscow must ensure that more, not less water flows from those water-surplus countries to water-short Uzbekistan (www.asiaplus.tj/articles/122/2996.html/).
And saying that “today, the fate of more than 50 million people depend on how this issue is resolved,” the Uzbek leader implied that if Russia did not do so, Tashkent was quite ready either to use its own resources to achieve its goals or to turn to other “great powers” that he suggested were ready to help.
Medvedev responded by saying that Russia would not continue any project in the region, including the construction of the Rogun dam, if there were not region-wide accord on it, words that infuriated Dushanbe, which responded by calling in the Russian charge and demanding an explanation and pointedly saying that it would complete the dam whether Moscow helped or not.
In this instance, Russia, which has a large military base in Tajikistan for which it pays no rent and which has declared that Dushanbe is its “strategic partner,” may have less leverage there than the Uzbeks think, especially if Moscow calculates that Tajikistan might turn to another outside power for help and thus reduce still further Russian influence in the region.
(One indication of the way things are going may come on Sunday when Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon arrives in Moscow to meet with Medvedev, a session that analysts at AsiaPlus say is unlikely to be entirely pleasant behind the scenes even if, as seems likely, both men will put the best face on things in public.)
But even if Moscow ultimately refuses to help Tashkent – which likely would lead Karimov to revisit the question of gas flows westward – Uzbekistan has a number of other arrows in its quiver: It can block the transit of Tajik goods and people across its territory, as it has done in the past, or it can use various kinds of cover force, as it has in southern Kyrgyzstan
According to the leader of Tajikistan’s Islamic Rebirth Party, Mukhiddin Kabiri, “the entire problem reflects the fact that both Russia and Uzbekistan as before continue to treat Tajikistan as “a younger brother,’” an attitude that some in Dushanbe have facilitated by their own actions in the past.
He urged President Rakhmon to “declare openly the national interests of the republic,” and on the basis of those interests, to look around for “reliable strategic partners,” including in the southern direction, an obvious reference to Iran. If the country had done so earlier, Kabiri said, the Rogun hydroelectric station certainly would already have been built.”
By the end of this year, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will be releasing less water downstream than they have in the past because of the growing needs of their own populations. That in turn means the growing needs of Uzbekistan for water will not be met, an outcome that will both help to kill off the Aral Sea and reorder the geopolitics of Central Asia.
At the very least, tensions there will increase, and the Russian government will be forced to choose between supporting the largest country in the region to control the flow of gas and alienating the country where Russia’s largest regional base is or backing the latter and watching Tashkent’s latest commitment on gas be reversed.
And that choice in turn will be complicated both by the danger that Uzbekistan will employ even more pressure against its neighbors in order to ensure it gets enough water and that outside powers – Iran, China, the European Union and the US– may very well be ready to take advantage of what some in Central Asia are calling “the new cold war over water.”