Crossroads Asia

Uzbekistan’s Changing Rogun Tone

Without Karimov’s bombast about Rogun, Tashkent is better positioned to earnestly engage on an issue of vital importance.

Uzbekistan’s Changing Rogun Tone
Credit: Presidential Press Service Tajikistan / Facebook

Last week, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov held what EurasiaNet surmises was “a likely carefully choreographed television Q&A session.” Among the questions was one regarding “Tashkent’s silence” on the Rogun dam project.

Former President Islam Karimov was violently opposed to the Rogun dam project, which predates independent Central Asia by a few decades. His most infamous comment on the matter was made in 2012 during a visit to Kazakhstan.

“Water resources could become a problem in the future that could escalate tensions not only in our region, but on every continent,” Karimov said. “I won’t name specific countries, but all of this could deteriorate to the point where not just serious confrontation, but even wars could be the result.”

In early August 2015, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry issued an unequivocal statement reaffirming the country’s objections to the project. The ministry also reprinted a 5,000-word statement made by then-Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov in summer 2014 which left few questions about the extent of Uzbek objections. The statement ended unequivocally: “Uzbekistan never, and under no circumstances, will provide support to this project.”

In the 11 months since Karimov’s death, regional watchers have monitored the new president carefully. His first moves were targeted at bettering relations with the neighbors, especially Tajikistan.

In late October, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon climbed into a bulldozer to officially restart construction of the dam by closing off the Vakhsh River for construction. Tashkent seemed “silent” in response. Anvar Nazirov, a political analyst in Uzbekistan told EurasiaNet, “I am amazed at how Tashkent is remaining so silent. The closure of the Vakhsh River is a threat to one of the main areas of our economy — the entire agricultural sector of Uzbekistan.”

In March, Crisis Group issued a report on Mirziyoyev’s first 100 days, noting that the new administration had “been silent about the construction of the Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan…” The sentence continued, extrapolating this silence into acquiescence of a kind: “… a possible sign of an agreement and even a shared, integrated energy system.” The revival of Central Asia’s regional electricity grid is indeed something on Dushanbe’s mind and Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev is much more amenable than under Karimov.

In April, Casey Michel took note of a change in tone with regard to Rogun. Komilov, at a press conference in Tashkent, spoke about regional water access:

Touching on a recent UN proposal on water management, Komilov expressed hope that regional governments “will be able to start a mutually interested dialogue.” Gazeta reported that Komilov added that friendly relations with neighbors — presumably both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — remained an “important foreign policy priority” for Uzbekistan.

What otherwise would be seen as “little more than diplomatic boilerplate expressing perfunctory positions,” in the context of the current political shifts underway in Tashkent was decided more notable.

Now, a few months later, Komilov broke Tashkent’s silence on the issue, responding to the likely pre-screened question about Rogun:

“The position of principle remains that during the construction of such dams, the interests of both upstream and downstream countries should be considered. We do not say that our Tajik friends should stop the construction of the Roghun Dam. Go ahead and build it, but we hold to certain guarantees in accordance with these conventions that have been signed by you,” Komilov said.

Uzbekistan — regardless of leadership or the status of the bilateral relationship with Tajikistan — will always have serious concerns about dams in Tajikistan. Downstream countries always do when upstream states start stemming the flow of water. Uzbekistan relies on water coming out of Tajikistan to support its thirsty cotton industry which is central to the country’s economy.

Tashkent now seems to be positioning itself to more earnestly engage on the issue of water. The absence of Karimov’s signature menacing tone on water issues, and its replacement with Mirziyoyev’s overall good neighbor initiative, enables Uzbekistan’s honest concerns about upstream projects to be heard and seriously considered, rather than dismissed as the rantings of an angry neighbor.