Of the five Central Asian states, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are arguable the most entwined with one another, culturally and economically. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – their proximity, they have consistently had the worst of relationships.
Recent expressions of this dismal relationship include trains containing vital supplies for Tajikistan held up inside Uzbekistan, and a rise in the price of the natural gas that Tashkent sells Dushanbe. The Tajiks are heavily reliant on their larger neighbour as most of their imports and exports have to transit through that country, and their economy runs on Uzbek fuel. From their perspective, Tashkent is using its position of advantage to bully them.
For its part, the Uzbek government has accused its mountainous neighbour of failing to curb Islamic militants in the past. These days, the main frictions are around the ongoing work to complete the giant Roghun hydroelectric scheme. While the Tajiks say it is their right to relieve their chronic shortages of electricity, the Uzbeks say the dam will reduce water levels on the Amu Darya, a major arterial river in Central Asia, and starve them of irrigation for their agricultural sector.
IWPR asked historian Kamol Abdullaev, who lectures at Ohio State University, to explore the history of the relationship, and look at ways of breaking out of the vicious circle.
Kamol Abdullaev: Since I’m a historian, I will start by going back almost 100 years, to when the Tajiks and Uzbeks lived in the Kokand Khanate and the Bukharan Emirate, parts of which became the Turkestan Region [of Imperial Russia]. In other words, they never lived in nation states.
Under Soviet rule, there was initially no demarcation of ethnicity. The Central Asian leadership of the time was largely bilingual and of dual ethnicity. Ethnic consciousness was effaced, and there wasn’t a fiercely expressed sense of nationalism. Effectively it was continuity from the previous state of affairs in Turkestan Region and the Bukharan Emirate.
What we have inherited is the nation state as conceptualised later on in the Soviet period. It is an ethnic nationalism centred on statehood, the premise being that a particular ethnic group should reside within its own state, and that it owns everything located on that territory.
Uzbeks were defined as a Turkic nation, and Tajiks assigned to the Iranian group. But this is really an artificial construct – the Uzbeks aren’t wholly Turkic, and the Tajiks are not wholly Iranian.
We have more in common than sets us apart. But it’s often the case that people with a great deal in common home in on tiny points of difference. They ignore all the things that unite them, and dig away at anything that divides them.
Nationhood/ethnicity and the structure of the nation state have become a battle-ground of interpretations. After the break-up of the USSR, the idea of looking for new ways forward emerged. Some kind of Tajik-Uzbek or Uzbek-Tajik association clearly exists – “Turk-o-Tojik” [Turkic and Tajik], the term that used to be used. It’s only natural that there’s both an attraction and a repulsion there, and that there are misunderstandings and conflicts. I think this will be the case for a very long time.
IWPR: Such misunderstandings are hardly in the interests of peoples who are fundamentally so close to each other. By raising freight transit fees, Uzbekistan sends a message that it controls trade routes, switching off the gas underlines Tajikistan’s dependence on Uzbek resources, and there’s the categorical disagreement over Roghun.
Abdullaev: I don’t want to delve into the ferocious debate on the Roghun power station or the transport problems here. These issues are hugely politicised, and need to be resolved by technocrats and specialists in calm environment.
IWPR: How can the two countries seek common ground?
Abdullaev: I believe we need to consider creating a federation between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, on the model of Russia and Belarus. Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan would win as a result.
In order to connect Tashkent with the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan had to lay a new railway and other communications via Angren. Yet the most convenient way of getting there is still through Khujand and Kanibadam, in Tajikistan.
We need to move towards a realisation that we cannot get by without one other, that border restrictions need to be eased, and that we should think about a federative state.
We’re not talking about a loss of independence or sovereignty – each state will have its own laws and constitution .
The issue of Samarkand and Bukhara remains important to both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. [These cities in Uzbekistan have significant Tajik-speaking populations, and are the subject of occasional territorial claims by nationalists in Tajikistan.] I believe the problem would be resolved by a federative state. The younger generation in Tajikistan has never visited Samarkand or Bukhara, just as there are Uzbeks who never go to Tajikistan. It’s entirely possible to resolve this. Samarkand and Bukhara aren’t the exclusive property of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan – they belong to the entire world, to the people of Central Asia. If Tajiks can travel there without having apply for a visa, it will cease to be an issue.
We’re talking about a frozen conflict that could be reignited sooner or later. Hence, we need to promote integration. Let me say again that I’m not talking about a complete merger of the two states, but a gradual process of moving closer together.
IWPR: There is a substantial Tajik minority living in Uzbekistan, and many Uzbeks in Tajikistan. What about them?
Abullaev: There are a lot of Tajiks living in Uzbekistan, and people from Samarkand and Bukhara were naturally drawn towards Tajikistan after independence. Many of them travelled to the country. Unfortunately, the civil war [in Tajikistan in 1992-97] altered that trend. The group we call the Tajik population in Uzbekistan is considering how it should identify itself. It’s a little unclear at the moment, but they are reluctant to identify themselves with the Tajiks, or with Tajikistan in particular, since that country is going through difficult times. But who knows? It might all change in future.
IWPR: One often hears it said that the misunderstanding isn’t so much between the two countries as between their leaders, Uzbek president Islam Karimov and his Tajik counterpart Imomali Rahmon.
Abdullaev: It isn’t about the individual personalities of the two presidents, it’s the fact that integration into a federal structure will entail the loss of certain powers, the loss of total authority over territory they consider their own. No president – and the Uzbek or Tajik leaders are no exceptions – is going to embrace changes that lead to a weakening of his authority. It’s important for them to control territory, resources and revenue.
My personal impressions is that that presidents Karimov and Rahmon used to emphasise how close their two nations are. Uzbekistan always said it wouldn’t leave Tajikistan on its own. Uzbek leaders realised that Tajikistan had lost out from independence, as it lacks resources, most of its communications with the outside world depend on Uzbekistan, and it is unlikely to survive without Uzbekistan. Officials including President Karimov have articulated sober, reasonable arguments of this kind. So miracles may be possible.
IWPR: Has some shift in ideology affected the Uzbek-Tajik relationship?
Abdullaev: The ideology in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is exclusively ethnic; it is founded on ethnic nationalism. That doesn’t suit either Tajiks or Uzbeks because during the Soviet period we had dual identities, as Tajik or Uzbek but also as part of a greater whole, the Soviet people.
The outside world views Central Asia as a single region – no one divides us into Tajiks or Uzbeks.
The ideology disseminated at state level and by official media is one of national exclusivity, of the nation as sovereign and exclusive owner of its territory – Tajikistan for the Tajiks, Uzbekistan for the Uzbeks. It’s a narrow interpretation of ethnic nationalism. It can be called state-based nationalism as it is defined by geographical boundaries.
I think we need to resist this trend, and the only way of doing that is to develop civil society via various initiatives. For instance, I would love to get together with my Uzbek colleagues, or invite them to visit, since I don’t get to see them now, unfortunately. I wrote my dissertation in Tashkent, the cultural capital of Central Asia since Soviet, even Tsarist times. I know colleagues in Tashkent who think along similar lines. Sadly, since visa requirements were introduced in 2001, I have not been to Tashkent.
IWPR: How realistic are these ideas of commonality and rapprochement?
Abdullaev: It can’t be just one more artificially created ethnic entity. It has to be about creating a civic identity. Tajiks and Uzbeks also marry Tatars, Russian, Koreans and others. We need to create a broader platform of civic values that encompasses all these people.
At its heart will be the concept I called “Turk-o-Tojik”, the classic description of the Central Asian population. It includes a bilingualism that has now disappeared. Fewer and fewer people are speaking Uzbek in Tajikistan, and even if they know it, they won’t speak it. Similarly in Uzbekistan, I’ve often met colleagues there who acknowledge only later that they are ethnic Tajiks.
Ethnic nationalism has its attractions, but those are now dimming. It never really inspired mass support, just as other past ideologies – pan-Turkism and pan-Iranianism – didn’t survive. We Tajiks get on very well with Iran and try to maintain good relations with it. But that doesn’t mean we want to find common cause with it. Uzbekistan, too, is a long way removed from ideas of pan-Turkism.
I believe that the dalliance with ethnic nationalism and romantic “pan-” movements will gradually fade away, and that people will come to realise how important it is to establish solid, lasting, shared civic values.
Shahodat Saibnazarova is IWPR radio editor in Tajikistan.
The audio programme, in Russian, went out on national radio stations in Tajikistan, as part of IWPR project work funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.