By Leon Aslanov
On March 9, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the President of Uzbekistan, took to the podium at his welcoming concert in Dushanbe and addressed an audience of Tajik officials, emphasising the ‘brotherhood’ and ‘warm relations’ between the Uzbek and Tajik people. “You cannot have an Uzbek wedding without Tajik songs, neither a Tajik wedding without Uzbek melodies”, he remarked. His mentions of cultural similarities and close historical ties between the two peoples drew rounds of applause from the audience. This set the tone for the rest of the event, filled with musical and dance performances that wove together aspects of both Uzbek and Tajik culture and their shared heritage.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, political relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been a far cry from the abovementioned amicable rhetoric. Several Western analysts even went as far as describing the situation between the two countries as amounting to an “undeclared cold war”. On the face of it, the tension within this bilateral relationship was attributed largely to environmental geopolitical issues – the water crisis. These disputes revolved around the issue of the construction of a hydroelectric plant in Tajikistan, the Roghun Dam, that would use the water stream to provide for the country’s energy needs. Uzbekistan, under the presidency of Islam Karimov, opposed those plans on the grounds that the plant disturb the flow of water and lapses in irrigation would harm agriculture in the country. Karimov even threatened to go to war over this issue.
Although these geopolitical issues were a thorn in the side of the political leaders of both countries, they were a symptom of historical problems that were exacerbated at the time of the “opening up” and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union – a common symptom among other post-Soviet states. The establishment of Soviet Socialist Republics in Central Asia in the 1920s led to the delineation of borders, and foundation of states based on Soviet-sanctioned national identities. Speaking in very general terms, the formation of the Uzbek state and the incorporation of the two most important cultural centres for Tajiks, Samarkand and Bukhara, into that state, have led to rifts both at the level of politics and of identity. It is for this reason, among others, that President Mirziyoyev’s speech and the welcoming concert are of such significance. It was a coming together of two nations divided by nationalistic ideologies and practical, but negotiable, issues.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Emomali Rahmon, President of Tajikistan, reached an agreement on the construction of the Roghun Dam. Mirziyoyev has embraced the project and promised to contribute to its development for the betterment of economic conditions in both countries. In addition, both Presidents agreed to a visa-free regime in which citizens of both countries will be allowed to travel across the border for a maximum of 30 days. Visas were formerly a requirement, which had caused problems for Tajiks and Uzbeks, living as minorities in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan respectively, who wished to visit relatives on the other side of the border. It is also worth noting that 9 crossing points were re-opened thanks to this détente.
The rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is clearly correlated with the election of Mirziyoyev as President of Uzbekistan, following the death of Islam Karimov. Karimov followed an insular foreign policy, viewing cooperation with Tajikistan as a threat to national sovereignty. Mirziyoyev, although part of the same “Samarkand clan” as Karimov, and despite having been under Karimov’s wing as Prime Minister of Uzbekistan, has taken strides towards opening up the country to its neighbours and beyond. Mirziyoyev’s approach may be seen as a way for him to garner support and legitimacy as a “reformer”, which, nevertheless, requires initiative and a change in state perspective on his part.
Implications for Armenia and Azerbaijan
The post-Soviet space is riddled with tense relationships between state and even non-state actors. None is more tense than the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There are a number of key similarities between the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and that of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. First of all, the borders of these republics were drawn under the influence of external forces, namely Russia. In addition, the national ideologies of Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan developed along the lines of a similar strand of pan-Turkism, although to varying degrees and bringing about difference in outcome.
Second of all, during the establishment of the Republics, the delineation of borders was highly contentious and opened the space for the rise of problems associated with nationalism, including conflict, assimilation and marginalisation. In the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, battles were fought between 1918-1920 for the regions of Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhijevan. As for Uzebkistan and Tajikistan, the former incorporated Tajik-dominated areas, Samarkand and Bukhara in particular, and pressured the Tajiks to assimilate.
Since these Republics gained independence in the 1990s, the country with stronger economic clout in each bilateral relationship, namely Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, have often attempted to starve the other country economically and have placed obstacles around their borders. During the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan imposed an economic blockade on Armenia and, in 1993, the former’s ally, Turkey, closed its border with Armenia. Since these border closures, Turkey and Azerbaijan agreed to build a railway that would circumvent Armenia and go through Georgia. This railway, named the “Baku-Tbilisi-Kars” railway, became operational in 2017 and will contribute to the economic development of those three countries, leaving out Armenia, whose own railway to Kars from Gyumri was shut in 1993.
In Uzbekistan, plans were discussed to open a railway (Angren-Pap) that would go from Tashkent to the Ferghana Valley, bypassing Tajikistan, causing concern amongst Tajiks who felt this would cause further isolation of their economically deprived country, especially since the closure of the interstate railway in 2011. The Angren-Pap railway was finally completed in 2016. Nevertheless, this was another issue that was addressed during meetings between Mirziyoyev and Rahmon, who agreed to re-open the Galaba-Amuzang-Khoshadi interstate railway.
There are, nonetheless, significant differences that must be taken into account when considering a rapprochement between Armenia and Azerbaijan based on the precedent set by Mirziyoyev and Rahmon. For more than a century, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been marred in episodes of physical violence, as territorial disputes in the South Caucasus took a military turn as the Bolsheviks and Ottomans advanced into the region during the first two decades of the 20th century. This is compounded with the extreme violence experienced by Armenians during the Genocide, which, although not committed by Azerbaijanis, still led to the exacerbation of the perception of the “Turk” enemy. This perception becomes sourer due to the ideological and political bonds that have been constructed between Azerbaijan and Turkey for over a century, leaving Armenia feeling “stuck in the middle”. Although Uzbekistan had some involvement in the civil war in Tajikistan between 1992-1997, it did not amount to an “inter-ethnic conflict”. The lack of violence between Uzbeks and Tajiks is a factor that would have facilitated rapprochement.
The most blatant difference in this regard, however, is the outbreak and continuation of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which has no direct parallel in the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan case. The conflict continues to play a significant role in the national consciousness of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis and its effects are still felt on a daily basis. Skirmishes along the border persist. The consequences of the population transfers of the late 1980s are still evident, especially in the case of refugees in Azerbaijan who have not been given opportunities to integrate economically and socially. In addition, the current Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is a de facto breakaway state with its own state structures and mode of governance. This level of separatism has not materialised between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Taking into consideration the current state of affairs between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mooting the possibility of a welcoming concert bringing together the Presidents of both countries is, of course, impossible. Nevertheless, the example set by Mirziyoyev and Rahmon has proven that two post-Soviet states with historical tensions are able to reach mutually beneficial agreements and to even celebrate their shared heritage. Furthermore, this was done without any foreign diplomatic intervention. This reconciliation took place thanks to the reformed will of both Presidents, especially that of Mirziyoyev. This development can set a precedent for Armenia and Azerbaijan, while taking into account both the similarities of each case and their significant differences.
Leon Aslanov is a political analyst working for the London-based Middle East think tank Integrity UK. He also works on a number of research projects related to the Armenian Diaspora and is a prominent member of the Programme of Armenian Studies in London. He completed his studies in European and Middle Eastern studies and achieved his Master’s in Political Science at UCL. His main interests lie in the history, politics and cultures of the South Caucasus and the Middle East.