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Tajikistan/Uzbekistan: Relations Warming Between Neighbors

Dushanbe, 20 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The often-delicate relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan appear finally to be reaching firmer ground.

The two Central Asian neighbors have signed a series of economic documents that could clear a path to closer and more mutually beneficial ties.

An RFE/RL correspondent reports that the agreements signed in Tashkent on January 28 are important in themselves, but that the real significance lies in the fact that both sides were willing at last to find common ground.

Since they both became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, the two states have been warily seeking a framework for their mutual relations, but until now a breakthrough had eluded them.

Tajikistan from 1924 to 1929 was an autonomous republic inside Uzbekistan, and the Tajiks feel they are still being treated as juniors by the Uzbeks. They see as interference in their affairs the fact that Uzbek President Islam Karimov has criticized Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov's handling of the internal Tajik conflict with the Islamic opposition. Karimov has recently lent support to some Tajik opposition leaders.

In reply to that, Tajikistan made clear that it considers big brother Russia a close ally in case of any regional threat.

Given this background, the economic accords between the two states can be seen as a definite positive sign. At the ceremonial signing of the agreements, Tajik Prime Minister Yakhye Azimov said that "at last the two neighbors have found common points of interests".

The signed agreements spell out terms between the two countries on payment for cargo shipments, gas and telecommunications for 1997. The accords also resolve the issue of Tajikistan's debt to Uzbekistan.

According to the documents, Tajikistan will pay its debt for Uzbek gas shipments by allowing Uzbekistan to transship cargo across the Tajik section of the Leninabad rail line free of charge. Tajikistan's debt to Uzbekistan for gas shipments had reached 200 million Russian roubles.

The solution is in many ways a barter deal, a practice that is not new to the nations of Central Asia. Economic inter-dependence, insufficient financial resources and general hardship associated with the post-Soviet transition have forced the governments of the region to search for other ways to pay debts. That has intensified the integration process between those countries.

Despite the progress, One key aspect of relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has not been settled, namely the issue of water.

Water resource issues are taking on increased importance in Central Asian affairs. Along with land, possibly more so, water has been the cause of wars and conflicts between governments in the region for centuries.

The Soviet system with its central planning and distribution of resources merely drew a temporary mask over the problem. But even in the Soviet era, disputes arose that carried over into armed conflict. For example, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1989 fought what became known as the Isfara-Botkent conflict, after the Tajik government cut off the flow of water to a canal that flowed into the Botkent region of Kyrgyzstan.

Between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a major irritant in relations in the post-indepenence era has been the fact that Tajikistan has signed protocols with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan on the joint use of the water resources of the Amudario Basin. Some analysts attribute the souring of relations between the Tajiks and the Uzbeks to this action more than to any other factor.

Uzbekistan, which is one of the main users of the Amudario Basin water resources, was shut out of the deal. As a result, there remains no official agreement on utilizing water resources between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In arriving at the present economic accords, the two sides agreed to avoid the dangerous currents and eddys of the water issue.