Arrests Mark Opportunity for Improved Relations Between Tajikistan and its Neighbors

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 151

In a rare moment of cross-border cooperation, the government of Tajikistan handed over two suspected terrorists to its neighbors at the beginning of July (www.azattyk.kg, July 8). Officials in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan consider Abduvakhid Aliev and Atabek Toychiev, respectively, to be guilty of a variety of transnational crimes and regarded the two men as terrorists. Both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan clearly benefit from Tajikistan’s cooperation in these cases. For Tajikistan, it was a positive gesture of bilateral cooperation that demonstrated the country is a trustworthy partner in combating regional security threats. This is noteworthy, because Tajikistan has often been cast as a source of problems, not assistance, in the region.

Tajikistan’s neighbors, and even some foreign organizations, have raised the fear that the country is disintegrating, isolated, and incapable of addressing its own problems. In 2009, the International Crisis Group published a damning report on Tajikistan’s internal problems, strongly stating that the country was on the verge of becoming a failed state (http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/central-asia/tajikistan/162_tajikistan___on_the_road_to_failure.ashx). Most prognoses of Tajikistan’s woes offer solutions that invariably revolve around greater cooperation with its neighbors. However, regional cooperation has had limited success. In August 2008, Tajikistan hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, and at that time the country wanted to become a more engaged member. Yet, during the last two years, this rhetoric has been followed by minimal action.

Part of Tajikistan’s inability to engage regionally is a result of strained bilateral relations with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan which have been well-documented. Until the ethnic violence that occurred in southern Kyrgyzstan in June, Tajikistan’s relationship with Kyrgyzstan was relatively positive. The two neighbors share a common perspective on water and energy resources, as they are in similar situations. Both are dependent upon Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for their hydrocarbon energy, while also providing water to the same countries. In theory, the two upstream states have common cause and could work together to create a more comprehensive hydropower supply structure. However, as the killings in Osh and Jalalabad were taking place in mid-June, Kyrgyz officials and media offered oblique comments that the actual culprits were gangs of “provocateurs” coming across the border from Tajikistan (www.ferghana.ru, June 15; www.paruskg.info, June 19).

The Otunbayeva government, as well as many outside analysts, seemed reluctant to accept the possibility that the violence was largely an intra-Kyrgyzstan tragedy, let alone that ethnicity played a key role. Whereas many saw the “hidden hand of Russia” in the April 2010 events, “hidden criminal forces from Tajikistan” were allegedly instrumental in the June violence. The Tajik government has repeatedly denied these accusations, which has only damaged relations between the two poor mountainous nations (www.asiaplus.tj, June 24; www.ozodi.tj, July 2). Despite the accusations, Tajikistan sent humanitarian aid to Jalalabad, and President Emomali Rakhmon agreed to provide assistance to Kyrgyz law enforcement and security services through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (www.ozodi.tj, July 2).

Tensions have long existed between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but the relationship has become outright acrimonious during the last year, due in large part to Tajikistan’s campaign to complete the Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River (EDM, April 7). While billboards in Tajikistan proudly proclaim “Rogun: a Bright Future for Tajikistan,” and citizens are strongly pressured into donating part of their meager salaries to support the construction of the dam, Uzbekistan’s perspective toward the project is markedly different. Uzbek media sources regularly report on the ecological and economic nightmares that will ensue once the dam is completed.

Uzbekistan has demonstrated its displeasure with Tajikistan’s hydropower aspirations in other areas as well. Since the beginning of the year, cargo trains transiting through Uzbekistan en route to Tajikistan have been frequently detained at the border (www.ferghana.ru, June 4). As a result, rail cars filled with fuel and building materials for US and NATO operations in Afghanistan have been delayed, directly and adversely affecting the flow of commercial traffic through the Northern Distribution Network. While Uzbek officials have attributed the impasse to technical issues, Tajik authorities view the situation as a deliberate effort to sabotage Tajikistan’s economic development and impede construction on the Rogun dam.

Recent arrests in Tajikistan are a sign that bilateral relations with Uzbekistan could continue to worsen. Earlier this year, Islam Niyozmatov, an Uzbek citizen accused of training with al-Qaeda and participating in its operations, was arrested in Tajikistan. In addition, six members of a group led by former Colonel Mahmud Khudoyberdiev have been arrested in Kulob and Qurghonteppa since the beginning of the year (www.ozodi.tj, July 22). Khudoyberdiev, an ethnic Uzbek who was born and raised in Tajikistan, was a key player in the Tajik civil war and remains wanted by the Tajik government. While his whereabouts are unknown, many suspect that Khudoyberdiev is currently hiding in Uzbekistan. The Tajik government has not accused Uzbekistan of sheltering the fugitives, but Khudoyberdiev’s current location, and to a lesser degree Uzbek interference in Tajik domestic issues, remains an unresolved issue between the two neighbors.

Unfortunately, recent CSTO and SCO meetings have done little to improve relations among Tajikistan and its neighbors. At the SCO summit held in Tashkent in June, Rakhmon did not talk to his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, and tensions between the two states were not addressed. However, Tajikistan’s handover of the two suspected terrorists could serve as a unique opportunity to improve ties with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Clearly, from Dushanbe’s perspective, cooperation on transnational threats will not immediately ease border restrictions or lessen accusations of causing other states’ internal problems. However, Tajikistan’s economic development and domestic security requires that it cooperate with its neighbors. The question remains whether Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan will respond in kind.