Saturday, April 07, 2012

Uzbekistan-Tajikistan: When is a Blockade a Blockade?

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Uzbekistan-Tajikistan: When is a Blockade a Blockade?

Uzbekistan is taking passive-aggressive diplomatic behavior to new heights.

Tajik officials have accused Uzbekistan of imposing an economic blockade by cutting off gas deliveries and reportedly taking steps to dismantle a rail line leading into the impoverished country. The unilateral Uzbek actions threaten to “lead to the further deterioration of the conditions of life of the people of Tajikistan and threatens to turn into a humanitarian catastrophe,” Tajik officials said April 2.

In response, Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev brushed of Tajik talk of a blockade as groundless, adding that “technicalities” are responsible for interruptions in trade.

Uzbekistan’s position is “absolutely justified and fully meets international law,” Mirziyoyev said in an April 4 letter to Tajik Prime Minister Akil Akilov, posted on the Jahon news portal, a website affiliated with the Uzbek Foreign Ministry.

Bilateral tension is not unusual. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have engaged in periodic diplomatic spats for over a decade. Tajik officials complain that Uzbek leaders repeatedly violate contracts to supply gas and electricity to Tajikistan. Uzbek leaders counter that Tajiks often don’t pay what they owe.

Dushanbe maintains that since 2010 Uzbekistan has carried out a “systematic transportation blockade” by delaying rail cargo into and out of Tajikistan. All of Tajikistan’s rail connections with the outside world run through Uzbekistan. In November, a bridge in southern Uzbekistan mysteriously exploded, severing one of three major rail links to Tajikistan. Tashkent described it as a terrorist act. Independent observers have their doubts about the veracity of the Uzbek claim.

The most recent spike in tension came on April 1, when Uzbekistan stopped all gas supplies to Tajikistan. Uzbek officials explained that they needed to fulfill supply contracts with China. Although Turkmenistan has indicated that it could supply gas to Tajikistan, Mirziyoyev said the Uzbek government would not allow Turkmen energy to pass through his country, which stands between the two.

Beyond the apparent gas cutoff, Uzbekistan is said to have started dismantling its rail spur leading into southern Tajikistan -- the one that was apparently damaged (and which Uzbek authorities promised to repair) in the November explosion.

Regional experts believe Tashkent’s behavior is driven mainly by a desire to thwart Dushanbe from building hydropower plants, fearing that the dams would increase Tajikistan influence over the region’s limited water resources, and thus give Dushanbe added diplomatic leverage.

Tajik gas officials have also suggested that Tashkent is using the gas shutoff to pressure Dushanbe into ceding a disputed reservoir in the Ferghana Valley, the Asia-Plus news agency reported.

In news that was no doubt pleasing to Uzbek officials, the gas shortage has prompted Tajikistan’s main cement plant to suspend operations – a development that is expected to slow construction at hydropower plants in the country. The energy shortage is also impacting production at the Tajik Aluminum Company (TALCO) plant, which is a major source of revenue for Tajik government coffers.

On April 4, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, spiritual leader for Tajikistan’s minority Ismaili population, paid an impromptu visit to Tajikistan in a show of solidarity.

The Aga Khan has been an important source of assistance for Tajikistan, especially in the years immediately following the country’s civil war in the mid-1990s. During his most recent visit, he pledged to continue providing humanitarian and development assistance.

Russia has also sent humanitarian aid to Tajikistan, which is recovering from an unusually harsh winter that saw officials severely restrict electricity. Some villages had only two hours of electricity per day.