Sunday, October 21, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Great Power Rivalries in Central Asia Seen Intersecting with Water Conflicts

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 21 – The geopolitical competition between the Russian Federation and the United States in Central Asia is intersecting with and potentially exacerbating conflicts between the water-surplus countries of that region (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and the water-short ones (especially Uzbekistan, the most populous).

            And as a result, Aleksandr Shustov writes on the portal, the danger of a “water” war may be increasing, and the possibility that governments in the region will seek to involve their patrons in the struggle for water means that such a “war” could be more dangerous (

            Given that Russia has been able to keep its military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the Moscow commentator continues, and given that “Uzbekistan has ever more consistently demonstrated its pro-American position, the geopolitical situation in the [Central Asian] region is becoming ever more tense.”

             Several Moscow commentators began talking about the danger of a military confrontation in the region after Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov said in Kazakhstan on September 7 that those who live in water surplus countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan want to use riparian flows to generate power.

            “But unfortunately,” the Uzbek leader continued, [the leaders of these countries] forget that the Amudarya and Syrdarya are trans-border rivers.”  As a result, “water resources can become a problem around which will sharpen relations in Central Asia ... This can call forth not simply religious opposition but war.”

            Leaders of the water short countries have often talked about the responsibility of the leaders of the water surplus ones to allow sufficient flows to support downstream populations and their economies. “But none of the presidents had ever before spoken” about the possibility of “a military clash.”

            The support leaders on both sides feel they enjoy from either the Russian Federation or the United States may be part of the region.  “At the end of June,” Shustov recalls, “Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty,” the Moscow-organized security grouping in the post-Soviet space.

            And “practically at the same time, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan proposed new financial conditions for the extension of Russian basing agreements.” Various military figures and analysts “began to speak about a systemic crisis in the Central Asian policy of Russia” and the possibility that Central Asia might be threatened with Afganization.

            But in the following months, Moscow was able to secure new basing agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the latter case in particular under even more advantageous terms than the Russian side had had up to now. And Moscow’s successes with Bishkek and Dushanbe have disturbed Tashkent.

            Bakhtiyev Ergashev, head of the Tashkent Center for Economic Research and an unofficial spokesman the Karimov government.  On his Facebook account, Shustov notes, Ergashev said that Russia “which wanted to obtain control” over the water system of Central Asia can only do so if it builds dams it doesn’t need to ensure that it can retain the bases.

            He added that behind Russia’s latest moves is the fact that “the Russian Federation has not been able to achieve the role of external arbiter of water disputes in Central Asia (which it has attempted to occupy in these years). And now it has decided that it must clearly and unambiguously take the side of one of the sides of this conflict.”

            During the summer, the Uzbek government expressed its displeasure with Moscow by suspending or limiting the activities of several Russian firms in that country and by “actively developing [its] military ties with the US.  US officials said, Shustov writes, that they “plan to leave Tashkent a large part” of materiel when the NATO coalition withdraws from Afghanistan.

            US military leaders have been visiting Uzbekistan in recent months, the Russian analyst continues, and Moscow newspapers have reported that Washington would like to establish an enormous military base there. (The US had bases there from 2001 to 2005 but Tashkent asked Washington to close them which the US has done.)

            “The latest successes of Russia in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan” represent a challenge to Tashkent, Shustov says. Either Tashkent must take part in the water-energy consortium which Russia is creating in the region or move toward confrontation [with members of that grouping] and move to allow the opening of a US base” on its territory.

            Uzbekistan is still formally a member of the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty, the analyst notes; its withdrawal “will be considered” only in December. If Tashkent does leave, Shustov concludes, that would be “a new geopolitical situation,” one in which clashes between Uzbekistan and the others could become a very real danger.

            And while these clashes would nominally be about water, the involvement of two outside powers, the US and Russia, may make the leaders of at least some of these countries willing to risk confrontation in the hope and expectation that their patrons would support them.

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