Are Tajikistan and Uzbekistan strategic partners?

Victoria Panfilova, columnist of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, specially for Vestnik Kavkaza
Are Tajikistan and Uzbekistan strategic partners?

Henceforth, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are strategic partners. The corresponding agreement was signed following the talks between Presidents Emomali Rahmon and Shavkat Mirziyoyev on August 17 in Tashkent. This was the first visit of the Tajik leader to Uzbekistan in 17 years. The parties also agreed on the joint construction of two hydroelectric power stations on the Tajik part of the Zarafshan River. Meanwhile, the main controversial issue - the Rogun hydropower station - remains unresolved.

This was the return visit of President Emomali Rahmon to Uzbekistan. Recall that in March this year Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Dushanbe. "I cordially recollect your state visit to Tajikistan in March of this year. Due to it, the relations between our countries were restored. Your visit gave a powerful impetus to the development of cooperation in various spheres. Thanks to your effective foreign policy, Uzbekistan's authority in the international community is growing more and more. People in your country are also undergoing great changes. I think my state visit is very important for our peoples, " Rahmon said during the talks at the Kuksaroy residence in Tashkent.

As Shavkat Mirziyoyev noted, Uzbekistan considers the visit of the head of the neighboring state as ‘an important political event in the new history of the Uzbek-Tajik relations.’ According to him, ‘today the countries have great opportunities to fully realize the trade, economic and transport-communication potential of the states”. "The main task for Uzbekistan and, it seems, personally for President Mirziyoyev, is a dynamic development of the region on the basis of good neighborliness and close mutually beneficial cooperation, capable of independently providing adequate answers to the modern threats and challenges, while ensuring its security and development not as a junior partner of any non-regional power or military-political bloc, but as an equal partner able to defend its vision of the regional problems,’’ Ph.D. in Political Sciences, the member of the Scientific Council of the Institute for Central Asia and Afghanistan Studies ‘Iran-East’ (Iran), Igor Pankratenko told Vestnik Kavkaza.

The changes that have occurred over the past year between the countries are indeed significant. An issue of visa-free regime extremely painful for the bilateral relations was resolved, demarcation and delimitation of borders were introduced, the new railway and bus routes were launched, the additional checkpoints were opened. A free trade regime is established between the countries. The volume of mutual trade is growing. In the first half of this year, the bilateral trade turnover increased by 35.1%. Uzbekistan expected to increase trade to $ 500 billion by 2020.

A decision made on n the Farhad hydropower station at the border of the two countries became extremely important. It creates the prerequisites for resolving the issue of the Rogun hydroelectric power station, the construction of which is being actively pursued in Tajikistan. However, based on the fact that the issue was not raised during the current visit, the parties could not find a mutually acceptable solution.

Nevertheless, several leading experts and specialists in the field of the hydropower generation and the use of water and energy resources are confident that the policy has collided with the economy long ago and the cooperation of the two countries in the use of the flow of Vakhsh would be beneficial to both of them. "The Rogun hydroelectric project was developed during the Soviet period in Tashkent, in the Central Asian branch of the Hydroproject Institute. In addition to supplying water to turbines for generating electricity, the 13-cubic-meter hydroelectric reservoir provided for the accumulation of water for irrigation of tens of thousands of hectares of new land in Uzbekistan, in the lower reaches of the Amu-Darya, " the expert on Tajikistan, Andrei Zakhvatov told Vestnik Kavkaza. In his opinion, this topic could be discussed at the talks in Tashkent. As a result of the discussion, the sides will be able to relief the fears of Uzbekistan that filling the reservoir will deprive the lower reaches of irrigation water by creating a small joint monitoring group of hydrologists controlling the flow of water into the reservoir and dropping of water from it. Tajikistan has repeatedly stated that it will not leave its neighbors without water. It is also possible that having weighed all the pros and cons, Uzbekistan will not only agree on Rogun's project but also offer its participation in financing the completion of the Rogun hydroelectric power station.

"Obviously, the unresolved issues in this area will not lead to anything good: the fact is that the populations of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have already exceeded 40 million people and continue to grow by about 800 thousand people a year, and the area of irrigated arable land per one a person is at a precritical level already. The social explosions associated with the population growth are not welcomed by anyone and the leadership of the two countries understands this well. There are the examples of achieving agreements on the division of water resources in the world practice - 10 countries on the banks of the European river Danube were able to agree. So, to expect that the parties can reach agreements on the subject is not a fantasy,” Zakhvatov said.

It is not yet known whether the heads of the two states managed to remove the trade and economic barriers. While in Dushanbe, Mirziyoyev said that "the current trade turnover indicator does not match the potential of the two countries, there are wide unused opportunities for bringing it to $ 1 billion." Tashkent, within the framework of pre-export financing, allocated $ 100 million to Dushanbe to ensure that Tajik importers purchase Uzbek products. However, Tajik customs is on the way of the entrepreneurs from Uzbekistan - it limits the import of food products. The Ministry of Foreign Trade of Uzbekistan named the restriction of Uzbek imports a violation of the free trade agreement between the countries. The parties decided neither to apply customs duties, taxes and charges, nor to impose quantitative restrictions on the export/import of goods passing from the customs territory of one of the contracting countries. Therefore, the optimistic expectations of the Uzbek authorities to increase the trade turnover this year are not justified. According to the forecast of experts, the trade turnover for the year will amount about $ 140 million in the best case scenario. In the realistic one - $ 120-125 million.

"Tashkent has repeatedly expressed its interest in a more active presence in the markets of Tajikistan, including the creation of joint ventures and the expansion of the commodity assortment of its imports, but Dushanbe artificially inhibits this process by preventing the penetration of Uzbek business into the country. The officials of Tajikistan openly make it clear, that they are ready to encourage the economic relations with Tashkent only in the agro-industrial sphere and tourism,’’ Pankratenko told Vestnik Kavkaza. In particular, in Uzbekistan, there are 39 enterprises with the participation of Tajik capital, and in Tajikistan - eight enterprises created by Uzbek investors. Perhaps, the situation will change after the business forum held in Tashkent, following which the export contracts for $ 103 million were signed.

Experts believe that Dushanbe continues to maintain an extremely cautious attitude towards Tashkent and the policy of Shavkat Mirziyoyev in the region. The country does not express readiness for expanding the bilateral relations. Therefore, the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Tajikistan signed during the current visit of Rahmon is rather declarative in nature. The more optimistic assessment was made by the head of an analytical group at the Center for Caucasian and Central Asian Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences, Stanislav Pritchin. He called the visit of President Emomali Rahmon to Tashkent "historical" and ”the merit of Shavkat Mirzieev." "Everything, beginning with the meeting of the Tajik president at the Tashkent airport, constructive negotiations and friendly atmosphere and ending with the signing of the package of documents, was made possible due to the new policy of Uzbekistan. Shavkat Mirziyoyev headed for the constructive cooperation with neighbors, even though there was a number of difficulties between the countries. However, some unresolved issues remain. For example, the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power station in Tajikistan, but in general, the atmosphere that developed between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is important for the regional cooperation ", Stanislav Pritchin told Vestnik Kavkaza.