A recent series of high-level meetings in the context of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization and the November 19 summit between Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov and Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov produced rhetorical statements of renewed interest in regional cooperation. But even as Central Asian political leaders declare their commitment to the goal of greater economic cooperation, lower-level government officials continue to create self-serving obstacles to cooperation. Trade and normal commercial relations among the Central Asian countries depends heavily on cross-border transportation. But the Central Asian transportation industry remains tightly controlled by the regional governments. Local officials involved in the trucking and rail industries continue to resist any simplification of trans-border arrangements because every simplification of trade implies a loss of bureaucratic control.
The recent skirmishes between Uzbek and Tajik officialdom over visa arrangements for Tajik travelers transiting Uzbek territory illustrate the power that Central Asian government officials wield over transit arrangements. The Central Asian states are compactly organized around the mountains, deserts, rivers, and oases of Central Asia in such a way that many of the region’s principal highways and railways are shared by several of the countries. Uzbekistan’s geographical position in the center of Central Asia gives it a pivotal role, as much of the road and rail traffic from the Fergana Valley and from Tajikistan must pass through Uzbek territory.
For political reasons, Uzbek authorities have controlled the Uzbek border with Tajikistan since the time of the Tajik civil war in 1992. Following the Hujand uprising in northern Tajikistan in 1998, and the emergence a short time later of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Uzbek border officials have taken steps to tightly control movement across the border through Uzbekistan. Uzbek officials have generally allowed Tajik travelers headed to other parts of the former USSR to cross over Uzbek territory using only internal Tajikistan documentation.
When Uzbek railway officials, in a surprise announcement, declared that they would require visas for Tajik travelers heading north through Uzbekistan, the Tajik authorities reacted with surprise and indignation. The Deputy Director of the Tajikistan passenger railway company, Alexander Andrianov, was quoted by Tajikistan’s Asia Plus-Blitz news service on November 2 as charging Uzbek rail authorities with waging an “undeclared war” against their Tajik counterparts (Asia Plus-Blitz, November 2). Andrianov was quoted as saying that a telegram from the Uzbek railroad authorities to their Tajik counterpart on October 21 appeared to require Uzbek transit visas for all Tajik citizens traveling across Uzbekistan’s territory. Amonhoja Hojibekov, also a deputy director in Tajikistan’s passenger rail company, was quoted as saying that the railway had requested that the Tajikistan Foreign Ministry inform the Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry of the conflicting policies.
Capricious use of the rules by local authorities and shifting policies have created great uncertainty for Tajik traders and families. The problem has grown in proportion as poverty in Tajikistan induce increasing numbers of low-skilled workers from Tajikistan to travel north to Russia in search of jobs in construction and low-skilled trades. What began as a modest seasonal migration in the mid-1990s has turned into one of the defining features of the contemporary Tajik workforce, as whole villages in Tajikistan have been emptied of their males, who travel north for seasonal work. Relatively high prices of air travel make the railway the preferred choice.
Tajik workers who travel north face low wages, discrimination, insecurity, a lack of protection by Russian labor laws, and anti-Asian sentiments by such nationalist extremist factions as the Russian Liberal-Democratic Party, which sees Russian jobs being “stolen” by Central Asian workers. Appeals from Tajikistan’s government and international organizations such as the International Migration Organization have brought about some improvements. Moreover, the ongoing push for greater economic integration throughout Eurasia fostered by the Eurasian Economic Community has led to greater policy harmonization. Beginning in January 1, 2005, an international passport will be required for Tajik workers in Russia. The Russian government is giving Tajik workers a three-month waiver of the requirement, necessitating a trip home to Tajikistan to receive new documentation. But this may require many Tajik workers currently in Russia to return to Tajikistan in order to receive new foreign passports.
The domination of the commercial aspects of the transit industry by government officials in Central Asia is not likely to change until private transportation interests emerge as political constituencies capable of encouraging simplified trans-border arrangements.