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'Counting The Days': Tajiks, Uzbeks Have Great Expectations After Landmark Border Deals

People prepare to cross the Gulbahor border area in southern Tajikistan on March 7.
People prepare to cross the Gulbahor border area in southern Tajikistan on March 7.

The political goings-on in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, usually don't attract attention in Ghafurov, a small, bustling town in northern Tajikistan.

One notable exception, however, are the deals signed during the landmark visit to Dushanbe by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev last week.

“If they deliver what they promised, it would improve many things in our everyday lives, like travel, electricity, and maybe even cheaper gas,” says Ghafurov resident Muhayokhon Samadova.

“Now we’re counting down the days for the [start of the] visa-free travel agreement to take effect,” Samadova said on March 12. “I hope it comes before April so our migrant workers can travel to Russia through Uzbekistan more easily.”

Twenty-seven cooperation agreements were signed during Mirziyoev’s meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on March 9, covering a wide range of issues -- from energy, water, transport, and transit to trade, culture, and the fight against terrorism.

The prospect of visa-free travel is a big deal for ordinary people.

With a sizable Uzbek minority living in Tajikistan and a large number of ethnic Tajiks living in Uzbekistan, it’s the promise of unencumbered travel that many were looking forward to when Mirziyoev arrived in Tajikistan to help mend years of chilly relations.

Thousands of people flocked to most of the 16 border crossings between the two countries shortly after the announcement of a deal introducing 30-day, visa-free travel.

But most were sent back home as the agreements have yet to be ratified by the parliaments in Dushanbe and Tashkent -- a necessary step before they go into effect.

Gulshan Inoyatov, who lives in the Tajik town of Buston, wasn’t allowed to pass the Sarband border crossing between Tajikistan’s Spitamen and Uzbekistan’s Bekobod districts on March 11.

Inoyatov said he was “so excited at finally being able to visit cousins in Samarkand” that he didn’t even pay attention to the rest of the news that the visa deal hadn’t yet come into force.

Smaller Neighbor

As Inoyatov and his family boarded a bus back to Buston, hundreds of others -- residents from both sides of the border -- had been passing through the Sarband border crossing since early in the morning.

The two countries have, in recent weeks, resumed an agreement that the residents of border areas can visit the adjacent district of the neighboring state without a visa for five days.

Tajik and Uzbek border residents are excited about the business opportunities as the border opens.
Tajik and Uzbek border residents are excited about the business opportunities as the border opens.

Dostona Hobilova crossed the border from the Uzbek side.

The resident of Bekobod said she wanted to visit relatives and “see a bazaar in the town of Nov” on the Tajik side.

“I took a few almond-tree seedlings, so the relatives plant them at their house to remember our family ties,” Hobilova said.

That long-standing agreement for border-area residents had been effectively dead as Uzbekistan closed all but two of the border crossings between the two countries over the past decade.

Relations between Uzbekistan and its worse-off and smaller neighbor, Tajikistan, were greatly strained under the decades-long rule of authoritarian Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose death was announced on September 2, 2016.

Under Karimov, Uzbekistan closed down vital transit routes for Tajik vehicles, repeatedly cut off natural gas supplies, and created obstacles for Tajikistan to import electricity from other Central Asian countries via Uzbek territory.

All smiles: The Tajik and Uzbek presidents, Emomali Rahmon (right) and Shavkat Mirziyoev, meet in Dushanbe on March 9.
All smiles: The Tajik and Uzbek presidents, Emomali Rahmon (right) and Shavkat Mirziyoev, meet in Dushanbe on March 9.

Tashkent also vehemently opposed Dushanbe’s project to complete a Soviet-era project -- the Roghun hydropower plant -- arguing that it would leave downstream Uzbekistan facing a water shortage and potential environmental problems.

Many direct flights between Tajik and Uzbek cities were canceled, bus routes were rescheduled to avoid driving over each other’s soil, and Tashkent even planted land mines along some sections of the border to prevent what it described as “extremists” from entering Uzbekistan.

New Realities

Mirziyoev came to power vowing to make close relations with neighbors a priority for the new government in Tashkent.

Hopes for rapprochement rose when the flights resumed between the two capitals, borders crossings were reopened, and even the Uzbek Foreign Ministry opened a webpage in Tajik on its official website.

Bilateral trade has also begun to increase: from $12 million in 2015 to more than $120 million in 2017, according to official statistics.

Agreements signed in Dushanbe foresee trade volume increasing to at least $500 million in the coming years.

The two countries agreed to cooperate in the management of water resources, which has been a source of regional disagreement in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mirziyoev also expressed support for the construction of Roghun, which he described as a “very sensitive topic.”

According to the agreements, the land mines in the border areas will be cleared by the end of 2019.

Mirziyoev said the two presidents addressed all major issues between the two neighbors, adding: “Our main aim was to satisfy our people.”

Ordinary people across the two countries hope their presidents will deliver what they promised.

In the Tajik town of Konibodom, 40-year-old merchant Nargis Tohirova is already planning to adapt her business to the new border realities.

Tohirova used to sell dry apricots, which she would carry from Konibodom to Uzbek bazaars.

It was a profitable business, she said, as few others were willing to carry goods through a border crossing with harsh rules and an unpredictable schedule.

However, with the border reopening and other travel restrictions being removed, Tohirova predicts it is only be a matter of time before her dry-fruit business goes bust as a slew of other vendors begin selling dried fruit under easier conditions.

But she has already come up with an alternative.

“I am now taking Tajik-made steam cookers to Uzbekistan,” she said. “They are quite popular in Uzbek bazaars.”

RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondents Masum Muhammadrajab and Iskandari Firuz 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.

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