When Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov unleashed the notion of a resource war four years ago, heads turned internationally. Discussing the region’s ongoing water disputes, Karimov noted that “all of this could deteriorate to the point where not just serious confrontation, but even wars could be the result.” Karimov’s commentary was couched in the abstract; he didn’t name any specific countries or actors. However, it was clear at the time that Karimov was directing his rhetoric upstream, to Tajikistan, and that he was taking aim at Dushanbe’s plans to construct the megalith Rogun Dam, planned to be the world’s tallest dam.
Four years on, Karimov’s threat still hangs. The Rogun project, meanwhile, has seen little movement, buffeted by the region’s economic slowdown. However, the potential of a military fallout didn’t stop Dushanbe a few weeks ago from signing an Italian firm, Salini Impregilo, to aid with the dam’s planned construction.
As expected, the move rankled Tajikistan’s downstream neighbor, and we’re beginning to get a glimpse of Tashkent’s response. On July 19, Uzbekistani Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev passed a letter along to Tajikistan’s prime minister, Kokhir Rasulzoda. In it, Mirziyoyev writes that the World Bank believes Rogun could bring “large-scale threats to the entire region.” The prime minister added that the project is but a leftover of “Soviet megalomania,” with Dushanbe causing “anxiety” with the “risky steps” taken toward Rogun’s construction.
All things considered, the letter could be seen as something of a climbdown not only from Karimov’s earlier rhetoric, but from some of Tashkent’s reactions and commentary in the ensuing years. While the language mirrors much of what was seen in Tashkent’s 2013 letter to the World Bank–which described Rogun as a project that could “result in irreversible social and environmental consequences” for the region–Mirziyoyev’s text contains none of the vitriol we saw in a 2014 response from Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov. After the World Bank, as Jamestown summarized, “explicitly approved” of Tajikistan’s schematics, Azimov didn’t hold back, castigating the World Bank’s assessment as both “unacceptable” and “complete nonsense.” Last year, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs then reissued Azimov’s thoughts wholesale, giving Dushanbe (and us) another chance to read through his claims about the World Bank’s “shallow and unprofessional approach[.]”
Still, even though Mirziyoyev’s language may not be quite as caustic as we’ve seen in the past, it won’t do much to assuage concerns–either in Dushanbe, Moscow, or Washington–that Tashkent remains bent on thwarting Rogun. That is, a slight tone-down is by no means indicative of Tashkent shifting its downstream stance. Given that Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, insists that Rogun remains essential for the profitability of the (U.S.-backed) CASA-1000 project and that Rogun fits squarely within Rahmon’s penchant for “megalomania” there’s every reason to think we’ll see more heated rhetoric moving forward, even if the dam continues to remain stuck in the financial mud.