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Central Asia's Great Water Game

A man leads a donkey laden with cannisters to collect water at the Ala-Archa River in Kyrgystan
A man leads a donkey laden with cannisters to collect water at the Ala-Archa River in Kyrgystan
Apples are a valuable source of income for Khadija and her family in summer, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

With a severe shortage of energy supplies affecting all aspects of life this winter, she has decided the family orchard is best suited to provide firewood for the cooking stove that now serves as a main heating source.

"We are left in such misery. I cut branches of trees to burn in the stove. I wish prices were cheaper, at least," Khadija says.

With no supplies of natural gas and electricity usage restricted to one hour, prices for coal and firewood have skyrocketed, leaving Khadija and her fellow villagers in eastern Tajikistan's Rasht Valley with few options.

Variations of the theme can be told in much of Central Asia, where electricity shortages deprive millions of the luxuries -- and necessities -- that much of the world takes for granted.

But for mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the solution is clear -- water.

Regional Meeting

It is with that in mind that the presidents of the two states headed to Moscow for summits of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec) on February 4.

But the trip to the Russian capital also promises to highlight the sharp divisions that water and electricity issues have exposed -- particularly following recent comments by the Russian president.

Tajik officials blame Uzbekistan for their energy crisis, saying the neighboring country impeded the supply of imported Turkmen electricity that travels long power lines that run across Uzbek territory.
At the end of the day, it is up to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan themselves to find a consensus

Seeking to take advantage of ample water supplies and mountainous terrain, Tajikistan hopes to complete construction of its Roghun hydropower plant and become an electricity exporter.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev was in Moscow already on February 2 for a long-awaited face-to-face meeting with Medvedev, and walked away with promises of funding that could help complete the country's Kambarata hydropower plant.

And beneath the surface, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan both fear that Medvedev is siding with Uzbekistan, whose downstream position has led it to oppose Dushanbe's and Bishkek's hydropower ambitions on the basis that it would be left without water.

Medvedev's comments during an official visit to Tashkent on January 22-23 -- in which he said that any hydroelectric power stations in the region should only be constructed after taking into account the concerns of all neighboring states -- sounded alarms in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Russia Factor

Tajik authorities reacted most sharply, vowing to go ahead with its hydropower projects despite all objections. And while Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in the end traveled to Moscow to attend the two summits, planned meetings with his Russian counterpart were cancelled.

Russian and Central Asian media speculated that Moscow was attempting to improve its ties with Tashkent at the expense of its relationships with Dushanbe, often seen as Russia's most loyal ally in Central Asia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) talks to his Kyrgyz counterpart, Kurmanbek Bakiev, in Moscow on February 3

Aleksei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, says that while the dispute indicates Russia seeks to play an important mediating role in Central Asia, it actually "is demonstrating its inability to do so."

"Moscow is not capable of concretely formulating its position so that the two interested parties accepted it," Malashenko says.

"In my opinion, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- understanding that they cannot live without each other despite their differences -- would try to find new mediators that would act in new conditions. If it happens, it would be a step toward weakening Moscow's position in the region."

Andrei Grozyn, a Moscow-based expert on political issues, says Moscow's latest position forces Tajikistan to diversify its foreign policy instead of counting on Moscow as its major and most important strategic partner.

Grozyn says that, at the end of the day, it is up to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan themselves to find a consensus -- "instead of telling Moscow 'choose me over my neighbor.'"

"Both Tashkent and Dushanbe in different ways but with the same persistence tell Moscow 'support only me.' It is not what Russia wants because in that case if Russia constructs Roghun, it would have to cancel other projects, including gas deals in Uzbekistan," Grozyn says. "And if it completely focuses on Uzbekistan, it would have to forget about all its economic interests in Tajikistan."

It is unlikely that Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan will resolve their water issues in Moscow this week.

Until the countries' leaders do find a common language, it will be ordinary people like Khadija and her children that pay the price.

As Khadija's teenage daughter, Gulandom, says: "These days you can't count on your government or on anyone else. You've got to find a solution to your own problems."

RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Salimjon Aioubov contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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