Commentary: Uzbekistan and Tajikistan Press the Reset Button

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan has recently paid a two day State Visit to Dushanbe. His first tour of Tajikistan since coming to power reflects the improving relationship between the two neighboring republics. It also underlines Mirziyoyev’s tireless endeavor in bettering relations with all the Central Asian Republics (CARs). After becoming the President in December 2016, he has visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Tajikistan, being the last country in this chain, completes the cycle of visiting all the CARs at least once.

Central Asia forms the core of President Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy. In last one year, Uzbekistan has improved relations with the neighboring countries, through a number of high-level meetings, sustained political dialogue, and expanded economic cooperation. These efforts are already fetching fruits in terms of enhanced trade and connectivity. This balanced, open and pragmatic foreign policy has created a positive environment of regional cooperation. One must see Mirziyoyev’s current Tajikistan visit in this context.

Uzbek- Tajik Relations at a Glance

The Uzbek-Tajik relations go back to hundreds of years, much before the crafting of modern borders. It also reflects the Turko-Persian dichotomy that has traditionally shaped the Central Asian history, society and politics. Incidentally, Uzbeks are the most populous and dominant Turkic group in the region; whereas Tajiks are the only dominant community belonging to the Persian stock. As a matter of fact, these two communities have more commonalities than differences, in terms of culture, cuisine, arts, and folklore. These two have been fluid populations; and bilingualism was, and still is, very common amongst them. Moreover, there is a presence of a large number of Tajiks in Uzbekistan and also vice versa.

Geopolitical compulsions have also determined the relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Both these countries have a long border with the unstable state of Afghanistan. The two also share, along with Kyrgyzstan, the Fergana Valley which is the most populous but most volatile part of Central Asia. Un-delimited borders and ethnolinguistic spillovers make the matter worse, leading to issues like ethnic clashes, drug trafficking, and radicalisation. These factors seem to have inversely impacted Uzbekistan’s relations with Tajikistan.

The bilateral relationship has experienced many ups and downs in recent history. A civil war broke in Tajikistan in 1992, immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, leading to a sense of fear amongst the Uzbek ruling elites. The relations gradually deteriorated because of the allegations and counter-allegations from both sides. Uzbekistan eventually closed all the border-crossing points, leading to miniscule connectivity between the two nations. There were reports that some sections of the border were also ‘mined’; the reason cited was an influx of militants alleging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). There were certain other factors also determining the relationship.

Tajikistan is an overwhelmingly mountainous country, and thus is a source of many important rivers of the region. Upstream Tajikistan and downstream Uzbekistan have always been divided on the water issues. Agriculture in Uzbekistan is totally dependent on the riverine sources coming from neighboring Tajikistan (also Kyrgyzstan). On the other hand, the latter depends on the former for its energy needs, especially natural gas. This became the reason for Uzbekistan’s stern opposition to Tajikistan’s proposed Rogun Hydropower project.

The relationship remained tensed also because of uneasy vibes between Karimov and Rahmon. Last state visit from the Uzbek President came in 2000 when the Treaty of Eternal Friendship was signed. Nevertheless, there was no bilateral visit in last 18 years; although the leaders visited each other’s countries a couple of times to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summits. Rahmon visited Uzbekistan in September 2016 to attend Karimov’s funeral.

Improvement in the Relations

After coming to power, Shavkat Mirziyoyev pressed the reset button in Uzbek-Tajik relations, leading to a qualitative jump in the bilateral cooperation. Major developments were registered in the sector of connectivity. In April 2017, the Tashkent-Dushanbe direct flight was reinstated after the lapse of 25 years. Recently, nine border crossing points were also opened between the two neighbors. The trade turnover has also shown an increase of 20 percent in 2017. Around the same time, Uzbekistan’s opposition to the Rogun Dam also got toned down. In last one year, the Mirziyoyev-Rahmon met four times at various international platforms and exchanged several phone calls. The Prime Minister of Uzbekistan, Abdulla Aripov, visited Dushanbe in January 2018 to lay the groundwork for President’s visit.

During the two days State Visit, Mirziyoyev held negotiations with President Rahmon in narrow as well as extended format. The two leaders signed a Joint Statement and as many as 27 documents, covering areas like political, economic and commercial, transport, cultural and humanitarian cooperation. These agreements are set to take the bilateral relations at the next level. Highlights of the visit are as under:-

• Agreement on (demarcation of) certain sections of the Uzbek-Tajik border was signed, putting an end to the confusion that was lingering since Soviet times.
• A deal was signed to establish a 30-day visa-free regime for each other’s citizens, which ended a 17-year visa regime between the neighbors.
• Mirziyoyev not only backtracked from years of opposition to the construction of Rogun Dam but stated that his government would consider providing support for the project’s completion.
• The Galaba- Amuzang- Hoshady rail route, which connects the southern Khatlon region of Tajikistan and the Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan, was formally inaugurated by the two Presidents during this visit.
• Uzbek-Tajik business forum and the National industrial exhibition of ‘Made in Uzbekistan’ was held in Dushanbe, leading to trade agreements worth $143 million.

Conclusion

Mirziyoyev’s successful visit has undoubtedly opened a new chapter in the Uzbek-Tajik relationship. Healthy political relations, increased trade and economic cooperation and enhanced connectivity shall provide impetus to coming closer to the peoples of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, who are bound by historical, cultural and linguistic ties for centuries. This is a crucial moment, not only for the two neighboring countries, but also for the region at large.

Since their independence, India has cultivated robust relationships with each of the CARs. Improved relations amongst the CARs are definitely in the best interest of India, which is trying to enhance its engagement in Central Asia. India has signed the Agreements of Strategic Partnership with both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Both these countries are also members of the SCO, which India has recently joined. Cooperation in security, trade, connectivity, energy and humanitarian arenas will surely improve relations between the regional powers like India, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, which cherish Civilizational Connect for thousands of years.

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)


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