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Central Asia: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan Try To Improve Strained Relations

A Tajik delegation led by Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov yesterday visited the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, to discuss bilateral relations. The two sides signed water and energy supply deals and discussed other long-standing problems in an effort to improve strained relations.

Prague, 30 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan relies heavily on Uzbek fuel supplies, while Uzbekistan's cotton industry, one of the pillars of its economy, depends on water flowing from Tajikistan's mountains.

Once, the two countries' economies were closely integrated. But the collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought independence for the two Central Asian states in 1991, has seen each try to go its own way -- often with difficulty and mutual mistrust.

Today, when the two countries negotiate water and energy-sharing deals, the contracts are usually year by year.

But yesterday's visit to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, of a Tajik delegation led by Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov was an attempt to change that recent history. The visit focused on bilateral economic ties and the signing of two cooperation agreements. The accords focused on cooperation in the deliveries of gas and lubricants. They also sought to spell out relations for the rational uses of water and energy resources.

No financial details of the deals were released.

Following the meeting, Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov expressed his satisfaction to reporters.

"I think [yesterday's] meeting was very productive. In fact, we have reached consensus on all [ministry-level] questions," Nazarov said.

Nazarov stressed that his country accords Uzbekistan a special place among its trade partners. Trade with Uzbekistan accounts for about 25 percent of Tajikistan's annual trade turnover.

The level of trade has grown steadily in recent years. It stood at $120 million in 2002, but amounted to $110 million over just the first eight months of this year.

The Tajik delegation comprised high-ranking officials from many government bodies, including the security services, the Foreign, Interior, Finance, Economy, Energy, Transport, and Agriculture ministries, as well as railway and airway companies.

Such a high-level Tajik delegation to Uzbekistan is a rarity and could signal a growing mutual desire to settle a wide range of issues.

During their meeting, Uzbek President Islam Karimov and the Tajik prime minister exchanged opinions on prospects for relations in the political, economic, and social areas. They also discussed questions of the joint fight against drug trafficking, international terrorism, and religious extremism.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodiq Safoyev told reporters that both countries are in favor of developing good bilateral and regional relations.

"We discussed with [Tajik Foreign Minister] Talbak Nazarov the issue of strengthening the current low level of cooperation. And we understand that we should develop regional cooperation. And we agreed to activate cooperation in the framework of the CACO [Central Asian Cooperation Organization]," Safoyev said.

CACO was instituted last year by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It promotes security and political cooperation and economic integration, and addresses problems associated with sharing water resources.

Uzbek state radio reports that the two sides also exchanged views on border delimitation between the two countries and abolishing visa procedures. Tajik Foreign Minister Nazarov said he does not rule out the possibility that visa procedures between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will be eliminated.

Many critical points remain to be solved, however.

About 60 Tajik civilians have been killed by mines on the mountainous Tajik-Uzbek border since 2000, after Uzbekistan unilaterally planted mines to prevent the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan from entering its territory.

Tajik nationals crossing the border have complained about the frequent and illegal detention of Tajik citizens by Uzbek police officers demanding bribes. Tajik transport firms have also complained that Uzbek customs officials often refuse to open a border-crossing point used mostly in winter due to the closure from snow of a road linking northern and southern Tajikistan.

On the economic front, Uzbekistan has often cut gas supplies to Tajikistan, citing debts which currently amount to more than $100 million.

Ballajon Mahmodov is a representative of Tajikistan's Energy Ministry. He says that one of the main concerns is getting permission from Uzbekistan to accept the transit of electricity from Kazakhstan through its territory.

"Every year in winter, we should buy 1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity from our neighboring countries. We have sent our representative to Kazakhstan to discuss this issue with the Kazakh authorities. But Uzbekistan has opposed the transit of the electricity to our country. [And] so far we have received only 30 million kilowatt hours from Kazakhstan through Uzbekistan," Mahmodov said.

The Tajik government has tried for the past six months to solve the problem of electricity transfer through Uzbekistan, with little result. Tajikistan's Deputy Energy Minister Saidmumin Sharifov tells RFE/RL that his country has managed to export only small amounts of electricity to Russia.

"Uzbekistan has been reluctant to allow energy exports [from Tajikistan]. We have discussed ways to transfer electricity. So far it has been possible to export only about 6 million kilowatt hours through Uzbekistan's network," Sharifov said.

The visit follows last week's agreement between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on an action plan on economic integration of the two states.

(Sojida Djakhfarova from RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Khurmat Babadjanov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)