Source: CACI Analyst

On September 20, 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Kyrgyzstan to sign an agreement on the construction and exploitation of the Kambar-Ata Hydro-Power Station (HPS) with the participation of Russian Inter RAO United Energo-systems and of the Upper-Naryn Cascade with the participation of Rus-Gidro. On October 5, Putin visited Tajikistan where he announced Russia’s intention to invest in smaller cascades. These agreements challenged Uzbekistan’s stance against the construction of such dams without objective international assessments of HPS-projects. Russia seems to pursue a geopolitical rather than a mediation strategy in Central Asia.

BACKGROUND: The possibility of regional conflicts over projects of HPS construction in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been the topic of heated discussions since the very beginning of the five former Soviet Central Asian countries’ independence. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are two upstream countries on the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers respectively, while the other three – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are downstream countries. The Syr Darya flows through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, while Amu Darya flows through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In the sphere of regional regulation and utilization of water resources, upstream states pursue an energy production strategy and downstream countries pursue an irrigation strategy. Therefore, downstream countries and especially Uzbekistan – the most populous country of the region and heavily dependent on a continuous water flow in the summer season – have constantly resisted the construction of high dams on the upper streams of the two rivers.

Kyrgyzstan is eager to construct the Kambar-Ata HPS and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of dams and Tajikistan wants to construct the Rogun HPS, prospected to become the highest dam in the world. During his recent visit to Kyrgyzstan, Putin stated that Russia’s participation in these projects was not directed against any country and that Russia is interested in such interactions over the issue of water control and distribution that would take into account the interests of all involved. He also emphasized that Tashkent and Astana are invited to participate in and manage the project. Some experts have suggested that Russia is initiating a new water-energy balance in the region. They also argue that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – the weakest countries of Central Asia – need to secure Russian protection in their water disputes with the stronger Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This provides Moscow with a lever for exerting influence on the Central Asian states.

IMPLICATIONS: It should be noted that Uzbekistan very recently adopted a new Conception on Foreign Policy Activity (See 9/5/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst) which states, among other things, that Uzbekistan rejects any great power mediation in the resolution of regional conflicts including those over water. Uzbekistan’s position is that regional problems can be solved by the regional countries themselves.

Interestingly, the Russian-Kyrgyz strategic “water pact” followed shortly after a seemingly strong and aggressive statement by Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov in Astana where he met with his Kazakhstani counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev on September 5-6. The statement said that water problems are strained to the extent that they can cause “water wars.” Karimov’s next regional step was a visit to Turkmenistan on October 3 where, among other, the two sides reconfirmed their common stance in the water dispute. The demonstration of an Uzbek-Turkmen tandem coincided with that of the Russian-Tajik tandem. Thereby, with Russian participation in the water game, Central Asia is seemingly splitting into two camps. The negative implications of such a course of events can be far reaching, since it can discredit the region’s own capacity and even achievements in the sphere of water management.

In this regard, it should be recalled that the five states of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – signed an Agreement on Cooperation in the joint management, usage and protection of transnational water resources in February 1992. This document is based on the recognition of the historical community of peoples residing in the region and their equal rights and obligations to ensure the rational use and protection of water resources. It also recognizes the interdependent interests of all republics in resolving problems relating to the joint use of water resources based on common principles and a fair regulation of their consumption. According to article 3 of the Agreement in particular, each party to the Agreement is obliged to prevent any action on its territory contrary to the interests of other parties and harmful to them and which can lead to changes in the adjusted volumes of water consumption and to the contamination of water sources. This cooperation was institutionalized by the establishment of the Interstate Water Management Coordination Commission. Hence, the joint control and management of water resources for which Putin called in Bishkek were already envisaged by an agreement dating back two decades.

If the five states have so far remained unable to comply with the letter and spirit of their earlier adopted regional agreements, what are the chances they will conform to any identical or similar arrangement shaped through great power mediation? Putin’s shuttle diplomacy and invitation addressed to Tashkent and Astana concerning the Kambar-Ata HPS may resemble a soft power projection effort, but is in fact closer to a hard power policy since he presented these two capitals with a fait accompli void of prior consultations, especially with Tashkent, on the matter. That is why Putin’s backing of dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can be considered a means for exerting pressure on Uzbekistan.

In any case, the recent HPS drama revealed that Tashkent and Moscow have different views on the issue of constructing dams on the region’s two main rivers. “Joint control and joint management of water resources” sounds nice and wise. But it leaves the question of how this should be achieved ambiguous. This kind of practical cooperation between the five states of the region could have been realized independently within the group had they found the political will for it.

CONCLUSIONS: The water conflicts in Central Asia must be resolved sooner or later. But this requires all the involved regional states, including Russia, to revise their current attitudes and positions. The more time that passes since independence, the more obvious it becomes that Tajikistan’s Rogun and Kyrgyzstan’s Kambar-Ata are not simply matters of national pride but above all matters of economic need, energy supply, and means of development. Uzbekistan and other downstream countries must recognize this. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in turn, must officially recognize the interests of downstream countries and express an approach based on good will.

On the other hand, Russia employs a combination of soft and hard power instruments to maintain its access to and geopolitical influence in Central Asia. However, it does this by the old means of divide-and-rule. The principal question, therefore, remains as to whether the five states of Central Asia have the institutional capacity, cadres and expertise, and political will to exit the water deadlock. Alternatively, their preoccupation with narrowly formulated national interests will continue to require great power mediation and thereby diminish the meaning of their independence.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Bilim Karvoni” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

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