In Central Asia, It Is Better to Speak of Confrontation than of War 1

Map Central Asia

On December 28th, 2012, Arielle Thedrel published in the French newspaper Le Figaro an article entitled Une Guerre de l’Eau Menace l’Asie Centrale, alluding to the uneasy situation of water-management in Central Asia, at the several occasions of (past and future) confrontation and at the political acrimony among the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. For the purpose of clarity, by Central Asia here is meant as formed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. There is indeed a lot of talk about “water wars” in Central Asia, about a possible collapse of the region, about the likely unravelling of the stability of the area due to clashes over hydro resources.

I personally think that Thedrel’s article has two merits: on the one hand, she focuses on one of the most under-studied, neglected and still-to-explore region in world politics, remote from the sophisticated, high-ranked and far more dealt with politics of the Great Powers, in particular the US, China, the EU and Russia, but still important for several dynamics connected to energy resources, gas and oil above all, the potential spread of radical Islam and social, military and economic tensions due to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2014. On the other hand, she reminded us of one of the biggest challenges that humanity is called to face in the (not so) distant future, i.e. the uneven distribution of natural resources, water in particular, and its potential role as a catalyst of regional and inter-regional conflicts, especially in an age in which droughts, progressive desertification of soils and hotter climate are making environmental world politics a tough business.

However, I deem that the picture portrayed by Thedrel in her article is a bit overstated, too pessimistic, and perpetuating the common narrative of Central Asia as a place connoted by conflict and disorder without taking into account several important political developments at the regional level that should not make us think of a water war in the region. Some of these developments are the substance of this short article, and I would like to consider them not as a counter argument to what Thedrel wrote, but rather as addenda to her already thorough reflections on the role of water in Central Asia. In presenting these developments, I will stick to a diplomatic-political framework of analysis, as I am not an expert of water-management or more technical subjects related to the topic, being rather an expert of international relations in general with a strong focus on Central Asia itself.

Signs of War?

The first factor to reconsider in light of the most recent events is the role played by Uzbekistan in drawing the contours and the shape of this regional conflict based on water usage. It is true that this pivotal state of Central Asia has taken advantage of its central position in the region to disrupt and alter supply routes to Tajikistan for materials aimed at the construction of Rogun dam, blowing up railways, closing borders unilaterally or slowing custom procedures purposefully at the border with the neighbouring republic (although these allegations have been sharply rejected by the Uzbek Prime Minister Mirziyoyev recently in a letter to his Tajik counterpart). However, in the last weeks or even months, the Uzbek government has shown a radical shift towards diplomacy and bilateral, institutional arrangements to advance its requests and, probably, to be seen in a more favourable light by the international community.

In an unprecedented example of diplomatic activity, in less than one month President Karimov visited both Astana and Ashgabat in September and October 2012, to ensure support and endorsement for its position against the strategies of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with respect to their will of building the hydro-power plant of Kambara-Ata and the Roghun dam. Talks, meetings and even diplomatic exchange of views with the two governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in December and November 2012 have slowly substituted, although probably not removed, the more direct and violent intention of Uzbekistan to reject the realisation of these two projects. While it is right to remember that last summer Karimov threw on the table the menace of a “war” in Central Asia due to the impossibility of reaching an agreement of water usage in the region, the Uzbek president has recently retreated on his own position, stating that “Uzbekistan’s won’t be drawn into armed conflicts with its neighbours” (December 2012).

In the very last days, it was hailed as noteworthy and diplomatically positive the decision made by the Uzbek government to send a new ambassador to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to participate as an active observer in the preliminary feasibility study of Kambara-Ata dam commissioned to an international organisation. It is worth remembering, as a matter of fact, that the Kyrgyz government, with the intent to reach a consensus with downstream countries, opened the project to participation for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and, whereas the former accepted quite immediately, the latter made its decision only a few days ago. In addition to this, Karimov has been stressing more than ever the role played by international law in regulating trans-border issues, the positive impact of good and friendly relations with neighbours (recall the agreement signed within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation framework and ratified in August 2012) and the important, fundamental I would say, function of international organisations in solving these issues. And this brings me to the second point.

The perils of a water war are indeed tempered by the presence of the expertise and pro-activity of several international organisations, the UN and the World Bank above all, who are in charge of assessing the feasibility and “realisability” of the two projects under scrutiny, invested by a sort of “tacit mandate” from the five Central Asian republics. One of the distinctive features of the Central Asian states is exactly to constantly appeal to the UN to prevent regional-scale conflicts and to implement regional policies aimed at the preservation of the survival of the republics (see, for example, the establishment of the UN Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Ashgabat with the consensus of all the five republics in 2007). These independent international organisations, playing the role of tertius mediator super partes among the conflicting parts, are buffering the tensions within the region around the water problem, and are creating a legal and diplomatic framework in which the Central Asian states can argue and dispute without recurring to bellicose means. It is important to note, as a matter of fact, that Kyrgyzstan has recently agreed to put its Kambara-Ata project under the UN scrutiny, claiming that the Kyrgyz government supports demand of neighbouring countries to make international assessment of Kambara-Ata hydro-power plant project by according to the words of the Kyrgyz Prime Minister Satybaldiev.

From a wider perspective, it is also worth recalling that the UN General Assembly has just approved the Tajik proposal to make 2013 a year of “Water Cooperation”, in the clear effort to reach a shared consensus in the region on water management and water-related problems. Co-sponsor of this resolution have been named Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan and, while Uzbekistan is not listed among the co-sponsors, it did not oppose the project. In relation to this, the Tajik Prime Minister Zarifi stated that Tajikistan’s hydroelectric projects “will be implemented openly and in view of interests of all countries of the region” (December 2012).

The third point is related to the nature of intra-regional relations among Central Asian states. Water is certainly a source of conflict, as are borders in some areas and inter-ethnic skirmishes in others. However, albeit recently, the Central Asian states have tried to cool down their strained relations over water management, in search of satisfactory solutions for all parties, at least not wholly damaging for one of them. Karimov’s statement has already been quoted, and the decision made by the Kyrgyz government has been recalled as well. In particular, this last fact should be seen as a first move to seek a shared understanding on such a delicate matter, and therefore should not been downplayed in assessing the potential for war in Central Asia, quite the contrary. A few weeks ago, President Atambaev of Kyrgyzstan, while commenting on relations with Uzbekistan, has stated that good relations with that country are top priority for Kyrgyzstan, while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have discussed the desirability of commonly agreed solution to water problems in several bilateral talks. Kazakhstan has tried several times to play its bona officia in the region, especially playing on the seniority of its leader, the 72-year-old Nurusultan Nazarbaev, and has chosen to participate in the engineering team attached to the Kambara-Ata project in search of ways to let its voice be heard, as it is a downstream country.

The fourth point is one I have already touched upon, but perhaps only marginally, i.e. the role of Afghanistan. With 2014, the US and NATO troops will be pulled out of this country, and Central Asian states are now drawing feasible strategies to protect and shield themselves from possible attacks from radical Islamists, from floods of migrants and from weapon-smuggling. The containment of post-war Afghanistan is the political and strategic priority of all Central Asian states, and of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in particular, as they share borders with that country. Therefore, to start a war over water exactly at the threshold of other potential dangers coming from their southern neighbour can be seen as an unwise choice to say the least. In fact, the trends discussed above seem to be conscious efforts to reduce tensions in a region that already foresees to face several problems in the near future, due to the absence of a consistent military presence of Western troops in the south. The Afghan state, therefore, while representing a menace for the future in terms of political and social stability, as well as for military security to the Central Asian republics, can paradoxically help Central Asian republics not overstate their bellicose tones, and to try as much as they can to solve the water issue peacefully in order to avoid distorting their attention to a common problems at their southern borders.

The last point I would like to make concerns the role played by Russia, and here I quite disagree with Thedrel’s analysis. First of all, we should consider that Russia is now dealing with independent states that, albeit considered weak and unstable, are now managing their regional relations with more autonomy than they had enjoyed in the past. Russia, therefore, is still trying to play the role of the hegemon, but with much more difficulties than one can think of. In particular, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have enhanced their position in the region, and seek to be treated as equals by Moscow, especially in regional affairs where their stakes are higher. Therefore, to say that Russia is somehow behind the curtain with an undefined role is to state the obvious, since now the region is inhabited by fully sovereign states. However, the role of Russia is visible in the Kambara-Ata project again, and it is one consistent with the politics of avoiding conflict in the region. Russia is a big stakeholder in the project, having it 50% of participation in it, and it was Russia itself that proposed to involve Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the construction of the plant with the positive nod of Kyrgyzstan. 

Moreover, it was Russia which encouraged the assessment of the project by an international organisation and it is Russia that now opposes giving Uzbekistan the right to veto in case of positive outcome of these assessment analyses. Therefore, while Russia is somehow outside the hot core of the contention among the Central Asian states, these few moves indicate how it wants, on the one hand, to be involved in the matter and to regulate some of the controversial aspects in order to avoid a larger-scale conflict and, on the other hand, how it wants this plan to function without damaging downstream countries, to protect its interests and to take advantages of its stakes in the project.

Confrontation is the word

The five points made above, as stated in the first lines of this article, want to be an addenda to Thedrel’s article rather than rough counter-arguments. The intent of this short piece was to show how politics is a complex and multifaceted matter all over the world, and not just in the West. Also in Central Asia, which is undoubtedly a place subject to “stereotypisation” and caricaturisation, politics has several dimensions, intermingling and overlapping, that should let us avoid using big words like war. As it is often the case, cooperation and competition are two aspects of the same question, and Central Asia is no exception.

To me, what we observe in Central Asia is more a confrontation than a war in perspective, a confrontation kept as such by diplomatic efforts made by the state leaders, by the role of international organisations, by the systemic and prospective danger of Afghanistan spilling over and by the presence of Russia, albeit weaker than in the past. There is acrimony, there is conflict, but there are also attempts to scale down risky behaviours, sharp statements and disruptive actions. While weak and perhaps superficial, these attempts should be considered in a thorough analysis of water problems in Central Asia from a political-diplomatic perspective. What I am suggesting, therefore, is not foolish or naïve optimism, but a more thorough and less emotional assessment of the overall regional balance of interests in the region. A proof of this is that a water war in Central Asia has been claimed for at least ten years if not more, and still these states not only have avoided it, but have been able to reach a legal agreement as that of 2008, then abandoned. The hope for the future, therefore, is not that war will be avoided, but rather that these diplomatic and political stalemates will develop in concrete action to make water management in the region better in the interest of all parts concerned.

Filippo Costa Buranelli

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