The Uzbek President islam Karimov has a reputation for blunt talking. But his mastery lies in nuancing his bluntness. It may sound a contrarian trait but then Karimov is a leader of many parts. That is why it is necessary to sit up and take note of his warning that wars could erupt in Central Asia over water disputes.
The bluntness is meant to attract attention. But Karimov isn’t going to declare wars on his two weak neighbors - Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - which control the Syr Darya and Amu Darya watersheds. Bishkek and Dushanbe are pressing ahead with construction of big dams in the upstream (Kambarata and Rogun), which Tashkent alleges will affect the flow of water into Uzbekistan.
Karimov made the statement in Kazakhstan, which shares the Uzbek concerns. Karimov said: “Why do you say such questions [sharing limited international water resources] are discussed by the United Nations? Because, today many experts declare that water resources could tomorrow become a problem around which relations deteriorate, and not only in our region. Everything can be so aggravated that this can spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”
He didn’t mention any country but he targeted Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — and Russia, which is negotiating with Bishkek on construction of Kambarata Dam on the Naryn River (also known as Syr Darya) and, perhaps, with Tajikistan too on Rogun.
Karimov spoke even as President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Bishkek in the coming days during which Russia is expected to sign an agreement on Kambarata Dam. Besides, it isn’t a “stand-alone” agreement, but is also linked to a raft of other agreements that are intended to boost the Russian-Kyrgyz strategic ties, including an agreement on the extension of lease for the four military facilities Russia accesses in Kyrgyzstan.
It stands to reason that Karimov is making a proposition to Moscow. No doubt, he antagonized Moscow by his decision to “suspend” Uzbekistan’s membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO], which virtually renders the Moscow-led alliance rather ineffectual. For, how could there be collective security in the Central Asian steppes without Uzbekistan?
Therefore, the other, less reported remark by Karimov also needs to be taken into account. Karimov said tension is growing in the Central Asian region in the light of the NATO’s troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. ”Our countries’ problems can be seen with the naked eye today. A worsening of tension is evident in the light of the upcoming withdrawal of peacekeeping forces from Afghanistan,” he said.
Karimov didn’t say anything new here. But then, he added that in the prevailing situation, it’s necessary to “expand joint activity” to counter any impending threat. In sum, Karimov harped on the imperative need for collective security.
Hmm. The intriguing part is that Karimov has just enacted a law that forbids Uzbekistan from giving any military bases to foreign powers (which probably closes the door to the Pentagon). So, could it be that Tashkent is revisiting the CSTO
Karimov knows it isn’t in Uzbek interests to antagonize Moscow, which is the only reliable provider of regional security in Central Asia. He spoke of water on the eve of Putin’s Bishkek visit and then in the same breath underscored the need of collective security.
Putin is scheduled to get a first-hand account of Kazakh President Nurusultan Nazarbayev’s conversation with Karimov when they meet next week at Pavlodar at the Ninth Forum of Interregional Cooperation of Russia and Kazakhstan. Of course, Putin and Nazarbayev go back a long way — and so indeed Putin and Karimov — and Astana often plays the role of “facilitator” in the Moscow-led integration processes such as the CSTO when Russia comes across road blocks.
The geopolitics of Central Asia are indeed complex. This is particularly so in the coming period due to the strategic ambiguity surrounding the post-2014 security scenario in Afghanistan. This also explains why Dushanbe held back on the Indian proposal
on Ayni air base during President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to Delhi last week despite the warmth of Tajik-Indian ties.