Is the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan standoff the first of many?

By Greg Shtraks

On March 12, Uzbek officials announced the closing of the Kara-Suu-Avtodorozhnyi checkpoint, a major crossing area in the disputed Fergana valley. Ostensibly, the closure was due to road repairs on the Uzbekistan side, but there is little doubt that the move was another turn in a continuing downward spiral that has characterized the relationship between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over the last three years. There are a variety of reasons why Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations are strained, but the two main culprits, like so many other conflicts throughout the world, are energy and water disputes. The problems started two years ago when Uzbekistan cut off gas to Kyrgyzstan in the middle of the winter. However, things have escalated since Bishkek’s announcement of a new hydroelectric power plant. Many observers of Central Asia have noted that the troubling permeation of conflicts stemming from these two issues have poisoned several bilateral relationships in the region.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the only states in Central Asia with no oil or natural gas deposits. This unenviable distinction has resulted in attempts by both Dushanbe and Bishkek to increase their substantial hydroelectric potential through the construction of new dams. Tajikistan’s Nurek Dam, built in 1980, is the highest in the world but doesn’t provide nearly enough electricity to power the entire country. For years, the Tajiks have been working on the construction of the Rogun Dam across the Vakhsh River, but persistent opposition from Uzbekistan has stymied any progress. For instance, in 2004 Russia’s RusAl signed a $2 billon deal to help the Tajiks finish the dam, but the deal was called off in 2007 supposedly due to the inability of Russian and Tajik engineers to agree on the dimensions of the project. There has been widespread speculation, however, that RusAl received implicit orders from the Kremlin to use stalling tactics in order to preserve the fragile equilibrium in the Russia-Tajikistan-Uzbekistan triangle. Russia is the only country to whom Uzbekistan sells its natural gas and Moscow was unwilling to fracture its special relationship with Tashkent despite the lucrative contract for RuSal.

The current Uzbek-Tajik dispute has similar origins. Bishkek has recently begun the construction of a big hydroelectric project called Kambarata-10N on the Naryn River. Uzbekistan, of course, argues that the completion of the dam will cause irreversible damage to Uzbek agriculture, namely the water-intensive cotton cultivation. However, unlike the Tajiks, Kyrgyzstan holds a trump card—last August’s deal allowing Russia to construct a second military base in the Ferghana valley. Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry blasted the decision as being insensitive to the fragile political situation in the valley (only 20% of the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is formally demarcated), but could do little to prevent the deal from going through. Russia, as usual, is playing its own geopolitical game as it strives to keep up with the United States, which has recently declared that it too will be constructing a new military base in Batken. (the U.S. insists it is only a “Center on Terrorism Prevention”). If it wasn’t for this competition, Moscow would likely have relented to Tashkent’s pressure, but the Kremlin figures that the implications of a U.S.-dominated Kyrgyzstan are too severe.

According to David Alix, the director of the International Water Program at Green Cross, water disputes can lead to increased cooperation between communities and states. However, this postulate applies only to agricultural and thirst-quenching scenarios. When energy and hydropower enters the equation, the formula becomes far more volatile. It is likely that we are only seeing the tip of what will be a very large iceberg. Last April’s summit meeting on the Aral Sea, which included the presidents of all five Central Asian states, ended with an empty declaration that has done nothing to resolve the accelerating destruction of a major ecological system. It seems that multilateral cooperation among Central Asian states has little prospect for success. The problem is three-fold: first of all, international treaties are very unclear on water-sharing issues; secondly, Central Asia has weak multilateral connections and no regional mechanism capable of resolving water disputes; thirdly, the geopolitical game between Russia, the U.S., and China in Central Asia makes it difficult to find a reliable partner to arbitrate these arguments.

Still, if any solution is to be found, then Russia, the U.S., Kazakhstan, and especially China will have to play a role. A war in Central Asia is in no one’s interest and Uzbekistan has already warned of using “military methods of intervention” if Kyrgyzstan goes through with the completion of Kambarata-10N. Not only would this severely destabilize the region, but would also set a terrible precedent for other areas in which water disputes are becoming increasingly commonplace (not the least of which is China itself). The first and most obvious step would be to reassure Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that their energy security does not depend on the whims of Razman Kadyrov. This can be done by applying pressure on Tashkent, but also by guaranteeing energy provisions from Russia, Kazakhstan, and China in case the Uzbeks do cut off their supplies. Only such a guarantee would make it feasible for downstream countries to hold veto rights over hydroelectric projects upstream. Secondly, the SCO could enlarge its mandate to include an arbitration court that would hear arguments on water-sharing issues. A number of SCO member states have had trouble resolving water disputes and a mechanism for resolving these problems could go a long way in strengthening the organization. Last, but not least, borders must be demarcated. This wouldn’t prevent national disputes from evolving into local hostilities, but it would limit the occurrence of instances such as the one that has led to the closing of the Kara-Suu-Avtodorozhnyi checkpoint.