Prague, 8 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of the Central Asian republics are to meet in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat next month to discuss issues relating to the transport of goods between their countries.
If the five leaders do manage to sign an agreement on developing transport routes and infrastructure, Tajikistan would be the country to gain the most benefit. This is because, as Tajikistan begins rebuilding its war-torn economy, one of the most pressing problems the republic is facing is simply finding ways to import and export goods, as well as to establish reliable passenger routes.
All the Central Asian countries have been facing similar problems in the post-Soviet era, basically because the existing means of transport are mainly focussed upon Russia. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, whose oil and gas resources are on a par with those of the richest Arab countries, have had difficulty benefitting from their assets just because of the transport problem. Whether they want it or not, they are dependent on Russia.
But of all the republics, Tajikistan is the most severely affected. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan may complain that they still have to rely on Russia because of the lack of alternatives, but Tajikistan does not even have that outlet: the Tajiks have to cross borders of two other countries just to reach Russia.
What are the possible ways for Tajikistan to reach world markets? To the east, along the republic's border with China, the Pamir mountains form a formidable barrier. The planned Karakurum highway could offer a solution in this direction -- not immediately, but in future. It would connect Tajikistan with China and Pakistan through Badakhshan, and, considering China's growing economy and market, it can be expected to benefit Tajikistan's economy. The highway will be built by China, Tajikistan and Pakistan, and the Chinese have already started their section. Tajikistan needs to build 45 kilometers of highway, at a cost of $25 million.
According to the Tajik Ministry of Transportation, the government has set aside an intial $20,000 to start the work. It is expected the project will attract foreign capital, and addition the Islamic Development Bank is considering assisting in the funding.
To the south, Tajikistan has a lengthy border with Afghanistan. This direction offers the shortest way to open water for sea transport. But it is rendered useless for the foreseeable future because of the Afghans' interminable civil war.
To the north, there is Kyrgyzstan, with the existing Murgab-Osh highway between the two countries. But in the broader sense that transport link goes nowhere in so far as Kyrgyzstan is almost as cut-off as Tajikistan.
That leaves the 1,200 kilometer border to the west with Uzbekistan. This is crossed by four major road links, as well as a railway. Currently, transit of people and goods through Uzbekistan is Tajikistan's only realistic option. But relations between Tajikistan and its bigger neighbour have not been warm in the post-Soviet era, having been affected among other things by disputes over water, the most precious resource of all.
Uzbekistan has closed its highways for Tajik lorries and other vehicles for nearly three years now without official explanation. But behind the obstructionism lie Uzbek concerns like stifling the flow of illegal arms across the frontier from Tajikistan.
The Tajiks could reply in the same manner, for instance by blocking water or energy supplies which are needed by Uzbekistan. But that would achieve little in the long run. Far better would be for the coming top-level meeting on transport issues in Ashgabat to lead to fruitful cooperation.
However, looking on the positive side, any discussion about the economic or social problems of the republic is now taking place against a background of peace, not war -- not amid blood, dead and wounded which was so characteristic of Tajikistan over the past five years.