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Central Asia: Is Russian Aluminum Forsaking Tajikistan For Uzbekistan?

  • Julie Corwin --> (RFE/RL) Russian Aluminum (RusAl) Chairman Oleg Deripaska recently visited Uzbekistan to investigate claims that pollution from a nearby Tajikistan Aluminum plant (TadAz) is making farming and other activities difficult. RusAl has promised to invest $2 billion in Tajikistan. But relations between Uzbekistan and Russia have warmed lately after Tashkent asked the United States to vacate the air base in Karshi-Khanabad, which it has been using to support operations in neighboring Afghanistan. And Deripaska's visit to Uzbekistan only served to heighten concerns in Dushanbe that a shift is under way in Russian foreign policy toward Uzbekistan and away from Tajikistan.

Washington, 7 December 2005 -- Oleg Deripaska is considered the oligarch closest to the Kremlin, and analysts generally assume he makes no move without official backing.

Deripaska was in Washington yesterday to speak at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank. Asked about his trip to Uzbekistan, Deripaska denied that either he or the Russian government plans any lessening of support for Tajikistan or the modernization of TadAz.

"[The] RusAl company is trying to create a modernization program for TadAz," Deripaska said. "There is a huge problem on environmental issues. There was pollution in the '90s because of lack of money, lack of investment. The system doesn't work at all. Still, you know, they pollute three times more than they should in normal circumstances. And the Uzbek government claimed that there is a huge problem, and I went to see what is the problem. I will ask RusAL management to rethink their modernization program to put first environmental improvements and then further expansions."

At the same time, Deripaska admitted it’s very hard to predict how quickly RusAl will be able to solve the pollution problem. But he did make one promise. "We'll put more people to investigate...this issue," he said. "And definitely our modernization program, which we will present to the Tajik government, will focus on this environmental improvement. And there is no impact on our study on our RusAl-Tajik project in Tajikistan."

RusAl's pledge to modernize Tajikistan's aluminum plant was concluded on the sidelines of a meeting between Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2004. RFE/RL's Central Asian analyst Daniel Kimmage suggests that the plant has more than just economic significance.

"The interesting component of this whole investment deal is precisely the political import because it took place on the margins of a meeting between Putin and Rakhmonov in October 2004. It was sort of the economic cement. It's the glue that's holding this relationship together on a certain level. So there is a level on which it is politically significant," Kimmage said.

Kimmage concludes that Tajik authorities might be wiser to focus their attention on the inordinate amount of economic power Deripaska will yield once all of his proposed projects are finished.

"[What I] think might be a cause for concern is that when the project in Tajikistan is finished, what Deripaska and his holdings will have are aluminum-production facilities," he said. "They will have power-generation facilities and access to a large pool of cheap labor. Now, the trick will be, of course, to avoid a situation in which this becomes exploitative."

Of course, finishing the projects will require at least seven years. TadAz is not scheduled to be privatized until 2007. In the meantime, Deripaska has pledged to invest $1.6 billion in aluminum-production facilities and hydropower generation for Tajikistan -- a sum that is equal to more than half of Tajikistan's annual gross domestic product.

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