Tajikistan


As of March 4, results from Tajikistan’s parliamentary elections show the People’s Democratic Party led by President Emomali Rakhmon winning 54 seats in the 63-seat lower chamber. Other parties – namely the Islamic Revival Party, the Communist Party, the Agrarian Party and the Economic Development Party* – won two seats each.

Depending on whom you believe, this outcome is either the vindication of the long-sighted platform put forward by the pro-presidential party or the outcome of systemic fraud.

In any case, the composition of parliament remains almost unchanged; the Communists have lost a couple of deputies, and the government party has lost a few seats to two dummy opposition parties that essentially materialized from nowhere, despite them having absolutely no public profile to speak of.

Reactions have varied from weary disdain to creeping dread about what lies ahead for Tajikistan. So what does the future hold in store: stagnation, tentative development or spiraling instability and a descent into worsening authoritarianism?

Kabiri: Two to Tango?

The fate of the Islamic Revival Party seems a useful illustration of general tendencies. Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri optimistically predicted before the vote that the IRP would win 10 seats. Kabiri has also insisted, since results were announced, that his party claimed at least 30 percent of votes cast, far more than the 7.7 percent officially attributed to it.

Kabiri earned some glowing write-ups on the eve of the election, and was cast by Radio Free Europe as a secular modernizer, complete with clean-shaven look and suit. Indeed, Kabiri seems like a confident and interesting personality, while his party has conducted a lively campaign, with supporters hitting the pavements and taking the message from door-to-door. The IRP also benefits from a natural hard-core base due to its regional roots and its, admittedly soft-focus, religious stripes.

One strand of thought on the eve of the elections had it that the IRP could be gradually co-opted by the government as a useful pressure valve for Islamic currents. There are monthly reports of arrests of adherents to banned groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Tablighi Jamaat, not to speak of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist organization. IRP represents the respectable face of political Islam and it has gone to great lengths to disavow the values of those underground groups and reject the notion of creating an Islamic state.

Kabiri, who lived and studied in Yemen during Tajikistan’s five-year civil war, also adamantly insists his party has received no support from foreign movements or governments.

Even more propitiously for Rakhmon’s regime, as suggested above, the IRP does not even make any claims to power. The party’s very modest expectation of claiming less than one-sixth of the available seats in parliament was an advance declaration of defeat and evinced a clear desire to engage in a compromise stance from the outset.

"Check if any of those pesky OSCE people are coming?"

Why then would Rakhmon’s party, with the connivance of the Central Elections Commission refuse to accept the possibility of admitting the existence of the IRP as a weak, if viable, opposition?

Broadly, and crudely, speaking there is something in the Central Asian-Soviet regime mindset that determines that legitimacy can only be conferred by appearing to gain an absurdly and implausibly large swathe of popular support (with 72 percent of the vote and an 87 percent turnout, more than 62.5 percent of registered voters supposedly cast their ballot for deputies from the People’s Democratic Party). To put it more succinctly, again and again, crooked post-Soviet leaders decide that legitimacy is earned by numbers, not process.

Rakhmon also evidently believes that compromise is not a necessity. That much has been evident from the immediate postwar years, when Rakhmon’s Kulyabi clan began reneging on power-sharing commitments made during the peace negotiations. Over time, the legitimate Islamic opposition has been squeezed out and, all the while, the authorities have been muscularly stamping out alleged militants or terrorists (whatever you want to call them) and their troublesome teenage chai-wallahs**.

This steady process cannot but add impetus to the widely held theory that all the government is contriving to do is drive Islamic movement underground, where they will fester and grow malignant. Perhaps Rakhmon looks with hidden admiration to Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov’s intransigent line has led to apparent success in terrifying and extirpating potential violent radicalism into virtual extinction. Or even to Kyrgyzstan, which has been seemingly blessed with a lack of active extremist groups, but whose forces have also claimed victories in the fight against terrorist groups.

Those parallels can be misleading, because the countries are so fundamentally different in their political structures, demographics and recent legacies.

But what should be clear is that all the leaders of these countries pursue a malign and dangerous logic drawn from the small blueprint: Crush the religious underground, while using it as the straw man justification for quashing basic democratic freedoms in the name of some hazy indigenous notion of national development.

Because Tajikistan’s regime is no less absolutist than those of its ex-Soviet neighbors, its pursuit of unfettered power cannot allow for the appearance of an opposition in the ascendancy. Therefore, the Islamic Revival Party must wither or remain stunted, and those that desert it for the radical fringes will be hunted down without mercy.

Pretending for a moment that Rakhmon is driven by something other than megalomania, greed and an unquenchable thirst for power, what else would explain this desire to remain so utterly unchallenged?

Wanting to make a purely academic argument, one could argue that the Rakhmon regime has come to understand that its model for the country’s future economic prosperity, which appeared predicated almost entirely on the success of the Roghun hydroelectric dam, requires absolute control and supremacy.

It is true that Rakhmon’s government will need total control over all levers of power to get away with squeezing the population as hard as it is doing to raise the money needed to build Roghun.

Road to Ruin or Stairway to Heaven?

A little bit of background here – The Tajik government has issued $1.3 billion worth of stock in Roghun and it hopes the cashless population will be able to stump up the sum and pay, which will cover the cost of building the plant’s first two units. According to plans, Roghun will eventually comprise six 600 megawatt units, which would be more than enough to supply the country with its own electricity needs and leave enough left over to export to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Having broken off a deal with Russia’s RusAl some years ago and realizing that nobody would want anything to do with a project rife with peril from corruption and intemperate Uzbek resistance, Tajikistan has decided to go the first part alone. The government ensures Roghun will pay dividends (literally) in spades, although Rakhmon seems curiously reluctant to sink his ill-gotten hundreds of million (if not billions) into the enterprise, but that is hardly surprising.

No, this will need a Soviet-style combination of ceaseless propaganda and strong-arming. And there is no room for even the smallest hint of dissent in this scenario.

Cynicism apart, the publicity drive does appear to have been successful and will ensure that the anger that should be brimming over will be tempered for some to come.

Kabiri has warned that he will bring his supporters onto the streets in a peaceful and legal protest against the fraudulent elections, but there are all too many reasons to think this call will not be heeded, if it is even formally issued in the first place.

Christian Bleuer at Registan.net predicts conflict fatigue – a legacy of the civil war – and the IRP’s inability to mobilize and organize mass crowds makes a successful protest unlikely. This is a fair but perhaps only partial explanation for what seems like the most probable outcome.

There is a case to be made that the People’s Democratic Party and Rakhmon have been successful in ramming home the anodyne, but effective, rhetoric of sustainable development, stability and energy independence.

The fact that many people may bought into this line makes it all the more tragic that the corruption, incompetence and thoughtless callousness of the Rakhmon regime is likely only to drive Tajikistan further to the brink of collapse and conflict.

* These two parties were both created in 2005, the year of the last parliamentary elections. The Economic Reform Party, led by Olim Boboyev, reputedly has 17,000 registered members. The Agrarian Party, led by former Soviet apparatchik Amir Karakulov, has 20,500 members.

** Last month, Soghd regional court jailed four men for “involvement” with the IMU, including 16-year-old schoolboy Nasibulloh Zabirzoda. The court found Zabirzoda guilty of providing his uncle, an IMU member, with food and provisions.

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As expected, Tajikistan has adopted legislation to downgrade the official status of the Russian language in a move that has reportedly had the country’s minorities up in arms.

Theories abound as to what might have provoked this reform; most of them pointing to malicious anti-Russian intent on Dushanbe’s part. Proponents of the modified law insist, however, that there is no chauvinism implicit in the measure and that the use of Russian remain enshrined in the constitution.

So what exactly is it that changed as of Wednesday, when the law came into effect.

Most notably, Tajik citizens are now legally bound to know Tajik, although how this will be policed is anyone’e guess.

Russian news agency Interfax explains further:

The bill also compels to use the official language when writing law, managing paperwork, conducting social events, research, posting announcements and advertisements, in official correspondence between country’s citizens, and in naming all companies and institutions regardless of the form of ownership. The current law (ed: old law) allows to use Russian at trials, in letters to authorities and governmental agencies, and to use Uzbek in the areas populated mainly by ethnic Uzbeks.

On the face of it, there seems to be substantial grounds for believing that this is an intended slight at Moscow, whose relations with Tajikistan have been strained amid disagreement over an array of issues.

Among these is the matter of reported Tajik demands for payment to host Russia’s 201st military base. Dushanbe routinely attempts to scotch such speculation, but the stubbornness with which this question lingers makes it clear that Moscow will have to settle this expectation at some date. Apart from financial considerations, however, Russia evidently feels that President Emomali Rakhmon should be grateful for the presence of the 201st, which saved his bacon on more than one occasion in the more turbulent times.

"What did you say?"

"What did you say?"

And it all seemed so rosy and promising last year. In August 2008, ahead of the annual SCO summit, hosted in Dushanbe, Russian President Medvedev and Rakhmon pledged to boost their strategic partnership, jointly explore for gas in Tajikistan and make the development of the hydropower industry a priority. Russia’s commitment was put into action in July, when Medvedev inaugurated the Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant, which could eventually provide power-starved Tajikistan with up to 12 percent of its annual electricity production.

As bright the prospects for Sangtuda might be, the Tajiks had set their aims higher. Until the Russians went and spoiled things, that is.

During a visit to Uzbekistan in January, Medvedev cautioned unnamed Central Asian states _ implicitly upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan _ against exploiting their water resources without consulting regional neighbors.

This is important for Tajikistan, since it will struggle to complete its ambitious hydropower station on the Rogun river without Moscow’s financial backing. Russia had pledged to stump up the cash for the project, but those promises appear to have run aground amid disagreement over commercial terms and Moscow’s keenness to keep Uzbekistan sweet.

But is it likely that this is what lies behind the language law, or could Dushanbe be serious about this one.

The respected Prof. Lutz Rzehak

The respected Prof. Lutz Rzehak

Speaking to Deutsche Welle’s Russian service, Tajik language expert Lutz Rzehak from Berlin’s Humboldt State broadly supports an initiative that he thinks only meets the requirements of the mostly non-Russian speaking population.

As he also notes, since the adoption of the original language law back in 1989, the demographic make-up of the country has changed radically, so the re-evaluation of the Tajik language simply reflects the real situation in the country.

But what then of the million or so ethnic Uzbeks that live in Tajikistan, which easily outnumber the 50,000-odd Slavs? Granted, Uzbek could not be endowed with the status of a language of “inter-ethnic communication,” the unwieldy term preferred by Tajik officials. As the presumed tongue of choice of a sizeable minority, however, it certainly deserves greater formal acknowledgement than it receives.

And we should not forget the Pamiris peoples of the Gorno-Badakshan autonomous region, who constitute yet more distinct ethnic and linguistic entities.

Like all hasty legislation, this Tajik law has quite blithely overlooked the concerns over whole swathes of the country, and perhaps that is no mistake.

Even if this is nothing more than a belated assay at manufacturing a consolidated pan-Tajik, which is perhaps a questionable project when conducted in this fashion, there remains a distinct impression that horse has been put before the cart.

As if the country’s higher education institutes were not already in a state of utter shambles, those same universities will now presumably be compelled to conduct instruction exclusively in Tajik. Most advanced textbooks are in Russian, and that there is little prospect that will change any time soon.

The only tangible outcome this law seems likely to wreak is that of accelerating the process of transforming Tajikistan into a nation of monolingual semi-literates.

Unless the Tajik government has a trick up its sleeve, which seems highly unlikely, the outlook looks grim.

Bridging the Panj River

 

U.S. 'R' US: Bridging the Panj River

 

Joshua Foust over at Registan has weighed in on the Manas air base saga, but I feel he may have wandered into some factual and analytical inexactitudes that I wanted to raise here for the conscientious Central Asia observer.

The most interesting point has to do with the apparent revelation in an Associated Press report that the Pentagon intends to resume “military cooperation” with Uzbekistan. Foust scoffs at the suggestion that this is a novel revelation, but I think that is a mistake.

The suggestion that the U.S. is trying improve military ties with Uzbekistan is indeed news, if it is actually true. Any negotiations we are so far aware of have focused on using the country as a transit point for non-military goods, such as food, building material and medical supplies. Military cooperation would entail engagement of quite a different order and could indeed raise ethical questions, if you are the kind of person that asks them.

My issue with the report is that rings decidedly false, and I would not be surprised if this is the United States military’s attempt to play its own card in the now-desperate information war it is waging with Kyrgyzstan; an attempt to scare Bishkek into desisting from overplaying its poker hand in the bid for extra money, which is clearly how Washington views this whole affaire.

Again, the story just doesn’t seem very likely, for a number of reasons. While there has been some rapprochement between the U.S. and Uzbekistan, it has been slow and pretty low-key. Resurrecting the K2 base is probably never likely to be on the agenda in Karimov’s lifetime for any number of reasons. Also, Uzbekistan looks as though it is prepared to commit to its membership in the CSTO _ the fact that Karimov deigned to go the body’s summit in Moscow is a rare concession that should not be underestimated.

Foust is also wrong in saying that March 2008 marked a turning point in that the Uzbeks allowed NATO countries to resupply from Termez. The Germans have been using that as a supply facility since coalition operations began in Afghanistan. What Robert Simmons said in Moscow last year was that U.S. personnel were travelling through a facility in Uzbekistan _ though he never actually mentioned Termez by name, contrary to what was claimed by some Russian news reports. All in all, it was a fundamentally pretty trivial development, regardless of what the media reports may have suggested.

It might also be nitpicking to question whether the United States thought (or thinks) Uzbekistan is the only choice for transit, but here goes. What is becoming clear is that the policy is now to pursue multiple routes, for the simple reason that it undermines attempts by any single rogue state from making a nuisance of itself.

Foust says Uzbekistan has the only high-capacity border crossing into Afghanistan, meaning the misnamed Bridge of Friendship. That is an assertion easily made if you have never tried crossing the bastard thing, but I know what he means.

However, the United States is clearly intent on making further use of Tajikistan in the future, which explains why they are in talks with authorities there to fund the building of yet another bridge to match the spiffy one across the Panj River that they already paid for a few years back. While there could be no talk getting there from Europe overland, which would either take you through Uzbekistan anyway or go via some hellishly winding and bumpy roads, there is always the option of sourcing goods locally. This is something U.S. diplomats have already spoken about doing in Kazakhstan, and there is no reason the approach could not be used elsewhere _ it would after all be a useful economic boost for particularly poverty-stricken areas like southern Tajikistan.

It is also glib to dismiss efforts to engage Turkmenistan’s role to play. At least the U.S. military thinks so; or General David Petraeus, CENTCOM commander, would not have bothered going there last month with the express intent of discussing how Ashgabat could assist operations on Afghanistan. On paper, Turkmenistan has said it is interested in helping stability in Afghanistan, and given its insistence on the neutrality formula, that could really only possibly mean assisting in transportation arrangement for non-military supplies.

Again, a lot of people seem to labouring under some kind of misapprehension about what these transit routes are all about exactly. It is not even clear that any military personnel will even be engaged in moving these goods from point A to point B, until they get to the Afghan border. It is, after all, almost certainly cheaper to contract these logistical services to private companies, which helpfully obviates cause for concern among any of the affected states that the operation would in any way be impinging on their diplomatic and strategic status.

On one point I am still just about in agreement with Foust, though I may in time have to eat many of the words I spent on my previous post. It is clear to any fool with eyes that Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is angling for money. That fact alone lets in the slightest chink of light into the gloom, if you are someone that believes Manas air base should stay put. The United States, though, have clearly not been very forthcoming on this matter, a fact that must frustrate Kyrgyzstan more than somewhat.

Even so, they have allowed some slight room for a demarche. In spite of government officials harping on endlessly about how it is the end of the road for Manas, the parliamentary vote on a government-sponsored draft bill to revoke the basing agreement has been delayed till at least Thursday, while deputies really chew it over, at the urging of the government itself no less.

This is patently a lot of hogwash. The bill is a work of febrile stupidity even by Kyrgyz parliamentary standards. Although it is true that Manas has been in situ far longer than most Kyrgyz people could have expected, it is quite absurd of the government to argue the base is no longer needed because operations to bring stability to Afghanistan have been successfully completed. It is quite peculiar that a government that squeals with terror over Hizb Ut-Tahrir should express such airy confidence about a country besieged by the Taliban.

In one of the more breath-taking passages in the statement accompanying bill, the government actually quotes Human Rights Watch as saying that too many civilian casualties have been killed in U.S. and NATO bombing sorties. Presumably, this is not the same Human Rights Watch that just this week criticized Kyrgyzstan for allowing Uzbek special services to snatch refugees and asylum seekers off its streets.

No, the process is being dragged out for longer than it needs to be, specifically because there must still be some hope that the U.S. will come up with an offer that Bishkek can’t refuse.

It is interesting to speculate what such an offer might be. Last time that Bakiyev was making rent demands it was $200 million per year. The U.S. currently pays $150 million between rent and other assorted goods and services.

Pig Wearing Lipstick

Aid Package: Pig Wearing Lipstick

For the sake of perspective, we should consider looking at what the Russians brought to the table. A lot of figures are being bandied about, but this is the full breakdown of the four-point deal:

1) Russia will issue a line of credit of $300 million to be paid on April 30 this year. The interest charged on the loan will be 0.75 per annum, and the sum is repayable over a 40-year period in biannual installments. The first payment is due on March 15, 2016, and the final payment has to be made by Sept. 15, 2049.

2) Russia will cancel all Kyrgyzstan’s remaining g debts, which total a little over $193 million. In exchange for that, however, Russia gets a 48 percent stake in Dastan, a company that produces marine torpedoes, oddly enough. It will also receive ownership of some building in Bishkek, although I’m not quite certain which one they are talking about.

3) The Russian Finance Ministry will give $150 million in financial assistance to be transferred on April 30, 2009.

This part is the only real gift as such, and it would be an interesting parlour game to speculate where all this cash will end up. Already, lobbyists are said to lining up to ask for money to build dairy and tobacco factories.

4) Most interesting, is the last agreement on the construction of the Kambaratinsk hydroelectricity generation plant. The Russian and Kyrgyz governments will take joint 50/50 ownership of a company that will oversee the construction of the facility via their state-owned power companies _ OAO Inter RAO UES and OAO Electrical Stations respectively.

Russia will “enable the raising of $1.7 billion for the construction building of Kambaratinsk in credit (with a grace period of eight years and loan maturity of 20 years) for the company” building the plant over a four-year period, starting from 2009.

Since this is the part of the deal that is the most eye-catching in numerical terms, it might be worth considering its exact significance. Again, it seems that the money is in fact little more than a loan, which will not in all likelihood even be issued by the Russian government. Not that it makes any difference if the government is stumping up the cash or not, but what investor in their right mind would sink their money into a project fraught with as many disastrous possibilities as a Central Asian hydroelectric dam. In any event, the actual building work will most likely be done by a Russian company. At best, this is a grand job creation scheme that could employ a few hundred people for a few years some time over the coming decade. The actual electricity won’t come online for probably six-seven years at a generous estimate.

It is also odd that Russia should backing this giant hydroelectric plant only a couple of weeks after President Dimitry Medvedev angered the Tajiks by suggesting they should ask permission from all their downstream neighbors if they wanted to build Roghun Dam.

Bakiyev plays hardball

Bakiyev plays hardball

The upshot of this all being that Kyrgyzstan hasn’t really got that great a deal. Really, money in the pocket _ pocket being the operative word _ totals no more than $450 million. The cancelled debt is a bad joke; as if Kyrgyzstan could pay it back even if it wanted to. If the United States had been prepared to look at $200-250 per annum in Manas fees and aid over the next two to three years, it would have easily presented a tempting offer of no-strings-attached cash on the table. Indeed, since operations at the air base were set to step up a few notches, it is quite likely that figure would have been reached without breaking too much sweat anyway.

As things stand now, the Kyrgyz parliament may possibly have passed the point of no return on Friday, however, by ratifying the four-point agreement detailed above. Strangely, this decidedly suspicious bit of legislation passed quickly and without the slightest murmur of discussion about what might lie behind it, or how and when the monies in question will be spent.

Having given the aid the green light, it remains to see how Kyrgyzstan could even begin to weasel out of its obligations to Russia on Manas. Provided it did commit itself at all.

After all, is it beyond the realms of possibility that this whole plot has been cooked up in concert by Bishkek and Moscow?

Consider the following premises and possibilities:

          While Russia wants Manas closed, it should really be fairly low on its list of actual practical priorities, and it does see some benefit in somebody addressing the problems of regional instability.

          Medvedev has talked in recent days about wanting to see movement on halting NATO expansion and plans to develop the missile defense shield in Europe.

          Linking these issues allows for reaching a compromise that sees Russia getting its way on either NATO or the defense shield, the United States holding onto Manas, and Kyrgyzstan getting much-needed cash from Moscow and Washington.

Ultimately, if it is a gambit, it is likely doomed to failure because of the perceived strategic costs to the U.S., but not because of the monetary concerns. Its failure would also mean Bakiyev has been played like a chump: No Manas rent, no diplomatic leverage, and a pretty meager pot of real cash to show for it.

The electricity crisis in Tajikistan has taken yet a further turn for the worse, as state power company Barki Tojik announces that supplies to the capital, Dushanbe, will henceforth be limited to 15 hours per day. Even worse, those parts of the country currently receiving two-three hours of electricity daily _ namely the Sogd and Khatlon regions _ face yet further cuts.

Luxury Goods Sale in Tajikistan

Luxury Goods Sale in Tajikistan

The most desperate aspect of all this hardship, however, is that it is eminently avoidable and has been caused in part by an unpleasant episode of customary Central Asian bickering.

Back in October, Tajikistan sealed a deal with Turkmenistan to import electricity at $0.03 per kilowatt hour. As agreed, 400 million kilowatt hours of electricity were delivered between November and the end of last year. Under the agreement, the Turkmens agreed to supply a further 1.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually until 2012. While not meeting the disastrous shortfall in power supplies, the agreement would have given the Tajiks much-needed relief and avoided the scale of power cuts seen last year, which virtually brought the country to a standstill as it suffered one of its worst winters in living memory.

Anyway, that deal was scuppered at the start of the month by Uzbekistan, which lies between the two countries and has seemingly refused to agree to a new transit agreement.

Beyond mere comic book villainy, there is a back-story to all this that should shed some light on why it is exactly that Tashkent is behaving the way it is.

According to their official version, the Uzbeks have had technical problems at a local substation, making electricity transits impossible.

Tajik officials, however, are skeptical and say that their requests to visit the site and inspect the pace of repair have been abruptly rebuffed.

Furthermore, Tajik Deputy Energy Minister Pulod Muhiddinov says the Uzbeks promised not to halt Turkmen electricity deliveries if Tajikistan would agreed to buy gas for $249 per 1,000 cubic meters, a pretty hefty sum for Dushanbe.

Tajikistan duly agreed to that arrangement at the end of December, only for the Uzbeks to renege on their word, says Muhiddinov.

Writing at Ferghana.ru, Sanobar Shermatova suggests a further kink in the tale (link in Russian):

The conflict of interests reached its ultimatum at the end of last year, when Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan agreed on sharing water, gas and fuel without consulting Uzbekistan. The reaction came immediately: Uzbekistan announced it would suspend its membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), closed its border with Tajikistan, and increased its gas prices to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The offence even reached the Russian leadership, which was called upon to act as referee as Uzbekistan sought Moscow’s support in its neighborly dispute.

The specifics of this account are not altogether clear or certain, not least the supposed tri-partite agreement from late last year, which does not appear to have been reported anywhere. What is certain, however, is that Uzbekistan has chosen to throw itself into open hostility with its neighbors.

Nurek Damn!

Nurek Damn!

In turn, Tajikistan has warned that now it is running short of electricity, it has been forced to drain additional supplies from the Nurek and Kairakkum reservoirs to generate hydropower. In doing so, it will cause a water shortage over the summer months in downstream nations _ namely Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (ironically) _ and thereby possibly result in the ruin of vital cash crops in those countries. Uzbekistan in particular, with its heavy reliance on agricultural output for export revenue and internal consumption needs, could be catastrophically affected for yet another year.

Unwisely sticking his oar in and appearing to take a pro-Uzbek stance, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev also spoke out on the water issue while visiting Uzbekistan a few days ago by suggesting that Tajikistan’s grand plans to build a number of hydropower stations along its rivers could cause regional resource crises and should be discussed by all Central Asian nations. This is a particularly strange observation, since Russia is involved in building the giant Rogun power station on Vakhsh river _ a point not lost on the Tajik foreign ministry, which duly complained to the Russian embassy in Dushanbe.

This signal appeared to suggest that Moscow will likely favour Uzbek reasons in future regional disputes, which is yet another intriguing twist in the broader play for influence in Central Asia. Russia’s services as a fig-leaf for Uzbekistan’s gross human rights violations have become effectively redundant, since Tashkent clearly doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of it anyway. But Uzbekistan has now found this new purpose for its former Soviet comrade _ one that could avoid Karimov falling back into the arms of his erstwhile American sponsors. In return, Medvedev bagged a useful gas deal that will help replenish Gazprom export reserves and also secured a guarantee to expand the Central Asia-Center gas pipeline, which will be needed if Turkmenistan is to meet its ambitious gas contracts.

Not Tajik

Bob Hope: Not Tajik

To put a new spin on the old gag, the United States had Johnny Cash and Bob Hope; Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have no cash and no hope. Reliant on Russian largesse, they have little room for maneuver, with the slender exception of the water issue. Abusing of that, however, would be self-destructive in the extreme and ultimately pointless.

Of course, this whole ugly spectacle is fundamentally needless and another reminder of why the collapse of the Soviet Union was, if not a tragedy, a wretched inconvenience for this part of the world. Countless summits have been held over the years to regulate cooperation, but again and again, the rhetoric and high hopes have been dashed by petty disputes and pride.

And, if isn’t too trite to point out, the regular long-suffering citizens of Central Asia will be the ones that continue to bear the brunt.