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Uzbek Official Severely Beaten as Roghun Hydropower Project Fuels Ethnic Tensions With Tajiks

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan

Political tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over use of shared water resources and other issues may be spilling over into ethnic tensions inside their borders.

On May 7, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that the former deputy chairman of the ethnic Uzbeks’ association in Tajikistan was attacked and severely beaten, allegedly for his criticism of Tajik and Uzbek authorities.

While many details remain unclear, Salim Shamsiddinov, 57, a professional lawyer and resident of Tajikistan’s Khatlon province, told local media that the attack could be linked to his interviews and statements blaming Tajik government policies for “straining relations” with neighboring Uzbekistan.

Shamsiddinov repeatedly questioned Tajikistan’s ambitious project to complete the Roghun hydroelectric power plant, a plan strongly opposed by Uzbekistan. He also suggested that certain officials within both the Tajik and Uzbek governments are pursuing narrow, nationalistic policies that have negative impacts on both nations and on ethnic minorities residing in both countries.

The Roghan Dam is to be built on the Vakhsh River (in blue).

According to RFE/RL, he called Dushanbe and Tashkent’s treatment of ethnic minorities a “form of genocide.”

Earlier this year, Tajik Ambassador to Russia Abdumajid Dostiev accused Uzbekistan of trying to destabilize Tajikistan.

 “Being oriented toward confrontation, the Uzbek authorities apply economic, transport-communication and other leverages with the purpose of coercing Tajikistan to adopt decisions beneficial for themselves [Uzbek authorities],”  Dostive said in a statement. “This will lead to further deterioration of living conditions [among the Tajik people]; it might cause a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Two weeks ago, Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev published an official letter (in one of the official government periodicals; there are no private newspapers in Uzbekistan) addressed to his Tajik counterpart, Akil Akilov, in which he put forward six “nos:” no to restoration of the Central Asia unified energy grid; no to resumption of railway communication between the two countries; no to reduction of transit railway tariffs; no to resumption of gas supply; no to de-mining of certain segments of the state border; and no to the abolition of the visa regime.

Experts say many of the conflicts between Dushanbe and Tashkent are based on personal dislike between the two presidents -- Emomali Rakhmon and Islam Karimov --as well as on their rivalry over leadership in the Central Asia region.

Back in February 2012, the two sides held talks on demarcation of national borders. Neither country has revealed the results of the diplomatic talks, but some media reports suggested that Tashkent wanted to expropriate the Farkhad hydropower plant on the Syr-Darya River, which could be interpreted as an attempt to annex Tajik territory.

According to local residents in the northern territories of Tajikistan, Uzbek military have pulled combat equipment (including tanks and heavy artillery) up to the border. There have been no reports of military aggression from Uzbekistan so far, but the actions were viewed as alarming in both countries.

Dr. Sabit Negmatullaev, a seismologist and former president of Tajikistan’s Academy of Sciences, told OOSKAnews that scientists from both countries would be eager to discuss and resolve any points of dispute. Negmatullaev was a member of the team that designed and implemented construction of the 310-meter tall Nurek hydropower plant on the Vakhsh River in the 1960s and 1970s.

In November 2011, Uzbekistan closed and disassembled the railway branch that connected Tajikistan to the rest of the world, allegedly in order to prevent Tajikistan from constructing the 335-meter-high Roghun plant.

Uzbekistan insists that the Roghun reservoir could leave downstream areas without water for irrigation. Tajik authorities say that, on the contrary, an increased number of hydropower facilities on the Vakhsh River (a tributary of the Amu-Darya) will help regulate seasonal water flow in the region.