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Qishloq Ovozi

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (left) met previously with his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoev in Saudi Arabia in May 2017.

The ice is broken in relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the thaw is well under way, and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev is going to Tajikistan on March 9-10 as a sign a figurative spring has arrived.

Mirziyoev has made better relations with Central Asian neighbors a priority since he became Uzbekistan's leader in September 2016.

This was no small feat, as the late Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, had done much before his death in 2016 to sour ties with Uzbekistan's neighbors since all five Central Asian countries became independent in late 1991.

Mirziyoev visited Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan during 2017, but not Tajikistan.

Inevitably, there was some speculation that there were issues between Tashkent and Dushanbe that needed to be worked out before the new Uzbek president traveled to meet with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

But perhaps it was simply that more time was needed for both countries to become accustomed to the idea that they could be friends.

Uzbekistan's relations with Tajikistan have been described as bad or tense, but those terms could equally apply to Uzbekistan's relations with any of its neighbors at one point or another during Karimov's rule.

In fact, Uzbek-Tajik relations have been downright nasty. At times their governments have actively worked against each other's interests.

So, as Mirziyoev and Rahmon usher in a new era in relations between their two countries, let's take a look at what many people hope will be left behind.

Sheltering The Enemy

The roots of the bad ties between the Uzbek and Tajik governments, or more accurately between Karimov and Rahmon, lie in the 1992-97 Tajik civil war.

Karimov strongly supported the Tajik government in its fight against opposition forces dominated by the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). In September 1992, Karimov sent a message to a World Forum of Tajiks meeting in Dushanbe asserting that "close ties between Uzbeks and Tajiks based on common customs and traditions and cultural similarities are an indisputable fact." In December 1992, Uzbekistan's Supreme Soviet approved sending a battalion to Tajikistan to prop up the government there and its new leader Emomali Rahmon (then Rakhmonov), who had not even been in power one month at that time. Uzbek troops were already in Tajikistan by that time, aiding government forces, and they would stay there until after the Tajik civil war ended.

Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev (file photo)
Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev (file photo)

Karimov did not want "Islamists" to come to power in Tajikistan, and he was not the only one who felt that way. Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev, commander of the Tajik Army's First Brigade, was also opposed to the Tajik opposition, specifically the IRPT, having any say in the governance of Tajikistan. The Tajik Peace According signed in Moscow in June 1997 gave the opposition 30 percent of the posts in government.

Karimov and Khudaiberdiev viewed this as a loss. Khudaiberdiev mobilized his unit in August 1997 and marched on the Tajik capital, but the mutinous colonel was thrown back. He and his troops disappeared, but not for long.

On November 4, 1998, Khudaiberdiev invaded northern Tajikistan. After four days, he was forced to retreat and again vanished. It seemed obvious that Khudaiberdiev had come from, and escaped back to, Uzbekistan.

On November 12, President Rahmon addressed Tajikistan's parliament, saying he had proof that Karimov had aided the rebels. "By organizing coups and helping rebels, the Uzbek leadership wants to take the whole of Tajikistan under its control," Rahmon said.

Officials in Tashkent vehemently denied any connection to Khudaiberdiev and expressed indignation at being accused of helping the Tajik rebels. Uzbekistan then pulled its battalion out of Tajikistan "for financial reasons" and redeployed some of those troops to guard the border with Tajikistan.

On February 16, 1999, a series of bombs exploded in Tashkent. Karimov's government quickly blamed Islamic extremists for the attack and initiated a crackdown that saw thousands of Muslims detained and sent thousands of others fleeing from the country.

'Ragged Refugees'

In May 1999, there was a shoot-out in the mountainous Tavil-Dara area of central Tajikistan. The disarmament process was still under way in Tajikistan, and officials feared this was another violation of the tenuous peace deal.

The government sent representatives to the scene to ascertain what happened. They found a large group of Uzbeks, several thousand, whom Tajik authorities described as "ragged refugees."

Many had arrived in Tavil-Dara after the crackdown started in Uzbekistan, but not all. Tavil-Dara was a Tajik opposition stronghold during the civil war, and in May 1999 it was the base of an Uzbek national who had joined the IPRT forces during the war. His name was Jumaboy Khojiev, better known by his nom de guerre, Juma Namangani.

The shoot-out occurred when some members of the Uzbek group decided they would take a chance on an amnesty offer from the Uzbek government and return home; a fight broke out with the members of the group who rejected leaving Tajikistan.

The last phase of Tajikistan's disarmament was scheduled for early August and the government and the opposition asked Namangani and his group to depart.

They did. They descended from the mountains into southern Kyrgyzstan at the start of August and seized a village there.

Both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments called on Tajik authorities to do something about these militants, but the Tajik government denied any connection to the militants and insisted they could not have come from Tajikistan.

Kyrgyz authorities paid the militants a ransom to release the villagers and some military personnel captured when they went to negotiate with militants. The militants left but quickly returned in greater numbers, announcing they were the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and stating their cause was to overthrow Karimov's regime in Uzbekistan.

Eventually Tajik authorities admitted the IMU was present in the Tavil-Dara area and they reportedly made a deal to transport the IMU out of Tajikistan to Afghanistan.

Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016)
Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016)

Karimov was furious that Tajikistan did not annihilate the IMU in Tavil-Dara though in fairness Tavil-Dara was pounded during the civil war and government forces could still never take and hold it.

Karimov said the IMU would come back. And they did in the summer of 2000, attacking southern Kyrgyzstan again and this time areas in eastern Uzbekistan. Tajikistan again denied any connection and declined to attack IMU bases on Tajik territory.

Uzbekistan planted land mines along the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that would continue to kill and maim innocent civilians for many years.

In November 2009, Uzbekistan's ambassador to Tajikistan, Shokosim Shoislomov, said his government had no intention of demining the border area.

"These mines in mountains do not affect anybody, and there is nothing to do for a normal person in such places which are difficult to access," Shoislomov said. "Only those who want to cross the border illegally are going there. It is these people against who mines were planted at certain sections of our border with Tajikistan."

Namangani was killed in Afghanistan in November 2001. Khudaiberdiev's location is unknown, but Tajik officials said several times over the years they believed he was in Uzbekistan and as recently as November 2013 Tajik helicopters "strayed" over Uzbek territory, some believed looking for a training camp where Khudaiberdiev allegedly was present.


Of all the people sitting in Uzbekistan's prisons for spying none are so numerous as those convicted of spying for Tajikistan. Many are women, some mothers such as Alana Kim, 36, sentenced in August 2017 to 10 1/2 years in prison for spying on behalf of the Tajik government.

Uzbek state television has devoted entire programs to Tajikistan's alleged espionage in Uzbekistan, programs such as Sotqinlik Girdobi (Whirlwinds of Treason) in 2013 and Jinoyat Va Jazo (Crime and Punishment) in 2014.

Tajikistan has not sent as many to prison on charges of spying for Uzbekistan, but there have been some -- such as Boymurad Anarov, an ethnic Uzbek convicted in January 2010 for giving Uzbekistan information about Tajikistan's Sangtuda-1 and Nurek hydropower facilities.

Bad Neighbor

And there are also the many criticisms Tashkent and Dushanbe have leveled against one another over the years.

On November 30, 1998, while continuing to deny involvement in Khudaiberdiev's raid into northern Tajikistan, Karimov said the amount of narcotics seized along the Kyrgyz and Uzbek borders with Tajikistan was proof the Tajik government and law enforcement agencies were involved in the illegal narcotics trade.

Tajikistan has complained many times about Uzbekistan unilaterally demarcating the border and constructing watchtowers and border posts without informing Tajik authorities.

Both governments accuse border guards of the other country of being involved in livestock rustling and other transborder crimes.

Uzbekistan has claimed Tajikistan's aluminum plant is polluting the air in Uzbekistan and bringing contaminated water downstream.

And then there is the perennial issue of water rights versus hydropower needs that has divided downstream Uzbekistan and upstream Tajikistan for years.

The two governments have gone to great lengths to demonize each other and all this has played out in state media of the two countries.

So if Mirzioyev has been slow in going to Tajikistan, it could be because the idea of Tajik-Uzbek friendship required some time to set in.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)

The first Central Asian summit in many years is due to take place in Astana on March 15-16, and it was shaping up to be an epic event.

But on March 2, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov took some of the excitement out of the gathering in the Kazakh capital by announcing he would not be going.

Berdymukhammedov offered no reason for not attending the summit, a decision arguably made more puzzling because an official visit is planned to Uzbekistan soon.

It is far from the first time a Turkmen president has stayed away while the other Central Asian presidents assembled. But this time the decision is particularly strange, since Turkmenistan could use the support of its neighbors to help get through difficult economic times.

Consulting the archives, we can find only five times that all five Central Asian presidents gathered with no other leaders in attendance: December 1991, January 1993, January 1998, April 1999, and April 2009 (though that last one was technically a summit on the Aral Sea).

The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have met together far more often, but Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, preferred to miss such meetings and Berdymukhammedov has followed his example.

Isolationist Tendencies

So it is not unusual that all the presidents except the Turkmen president would meet, but times are different now, certainly for Turkmenistan.

Ashgabat clings to Turkmenistan's UN-recognized status as a neutral country and uses that to remain one of the most isolationist countries in the world. But Turkmenistan is in an economic crisis, making connectivity with the outside world more important than it ever was before.

Uzbekistan's new president, Shavkat Mirziyoev, has made regional cooperation a priority since he came to power in September 2016. That has already allowed Turkmenistan to renew electricity exports across Uzbekistan to Tajikistan, and talks with other Central Asian presidents at the summit could lead to more agreements, extra flour imports from Kazakhstan being one important possibility (see below).

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have signaled in recent months that they are moving ahead with construction of Line D of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, the biggest of the four pipelines carrying Turkmen gas to China and the only one of the four that will carry Turkmen gas exclusively.

It is revenue that Turkmenistan badly needs at the moment, and therefore it would seem a priority for Berdymukhammedov to meet with and urge his Kyrgyz and Tajik counterparts to complete their sections of the line.

Security along the Afghan border is a vital topic for Central Asia -- Turkmenistan in particular, since militant groups in northwestern Afghanistan are reportedly operating in areas along the Turkmen border.

The summit would also be an opportunity for Turkmen state media to fill its coverage with images of Berdymukhammedov meeting with his Central Asian counterparts.

So it is a mystery why Berdymukhammedov is not going to Astana.

Food Shortages

There are several possible reasons why the Turkmen president is bowing out of this meeting.

The most logical would be that Turkmenistan's economic crisis seems to be approaching a breaking point.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been reporting for months that basic goods are in short supply.

Azatlyk reported on March 5 that frustrated citizens in Mary Province forced their way into a store after a local official said there was no more flour available. There has been a flour shortage across Turkmenistan. Sales have been rationed and there are reports of people lining up hours before stores open, hoping to be able to buy some flour before it runs out again. Members of the mob in Mary Province reportedly beat the official and broke into the store, discovering sacks of flour that were then distributed to the crowd.

In a different area of Mary Province, a group of women reportedly blocked the road and demanded that officials make flour available, a demand that officials met.

There have been reports of crowds gathering outside administrative buildings in the northern Dashoguz Province, demanding solutions to the problem of food shortages.

Such challenges to the authorities would have been unthinkable in Turkmenistan just a couple of years ago, but they seem to be increasing in frequency in the last year.

That would be the most logical reason for Berdymukhammedov to want to stay in Turkmenistan, but it is unlikely that is the real reason.


Another possibility is that Berdymukhammedov has been rumored to be in ill-health recently.

Before we go on, I know what you're thinking: Rumors of bad health and Central Asian leaders go hand-in-hand, and we've been down this road a hundred times and more already. But in late January, Berdymukhammedov missed at least one session of the government and arrived for visits to Mary and Lebap provinces later than originally scheduled. No explanation was given. However, after he reappeared in early February, Berdymukhammedov looked a bit less energetic than usual.

Turkmenistan also holds parliamentary elections on March 25. Berdymukhammedov could have excused himself from the summit on account of the impending poll, but this would be the thinnest of reasons since elections in Turkmenistan are heavily scripted events and the results clear long before voters actually cast ballots.

Whatever his reasons, Berdymukhammedov's decision not to go to the summit might turn out to be a huge mistake.

He is sending a delegation led by the speaker of parliament, Akja Nurberdieva, officially the second-most-powerful official after the president. But in fact, there can be no agreement with Turkmenistan without Berdymukhammedov.

Berdymukhammedov and his country have much to gain from new Central Asian regional cooperation and really nothing to lose by being a part of it.

It is therefore tempting to conclude that whatever the reason Berdymukhammedov has resolved to stay at home, it's something serious.

Farruh Yusupov, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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