BY SIDNEY BALABAN
A formidable Soviet project, the Farhod Hydropower Plant (HPP), stands immovable on the border of Northern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, in the Spitamen District of the Sughd Province. Due to its location, the Farhod HPP and reservoir have been involved in one of the most contentious territorial and property disputes between the two countries since their independence.
The hydroelectric infrastructure project was the largest in Uzbekistan and the third largest in the Soviet Union at the time of its construction, producing an annual average of 830 million kWh. The Farhod HPP, reservoir, and its border territory have swapped owners multiple times since its inception until March of 2018, when both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agreed to recognize the border territory as belonging to Tajikistan and the hydropower plant as belonging to Uzbekistan.
The construction of the Farhod reservoir was completed in 1947, while the HPP was completed two years later in 1949. The HPP project was constructed by an estimated 70,000 workers, primarily consisting of Uzbeks as well as a few thousand German and Japanese prisoners from World War II. The plant was built by a Soviet construction company, Farhodstroy, and since its completion has been operated by the state-run Uzbek energy company, Uzbekenergo, which has managed its production to the present day. In 1953, the hydropower plant was put into operation; the energy that it produces has been, and continues to be, solely used for Uzbekistan. The reservoir, on the other hand, is relied on for both Tajik and Uzbek irrigation in the Golodnaya and Dal’berzinskaya steppes. In Tajikistan, the Farhod reservoir supplies water for 60% of cotton production in the Sughd Region.
The point of contention arises from territorial disputes and the breakdown of ties that were taken for granted under the USSR. Prior to the Farhod projects, the territory was delineated by Soviet technocrats as belonging to Tajikistan. With the advent of the construction projects, multiple agreements were signed in the 1930s and 1940s between the Tajikistan SSR and Uzbekistan SSR, which resulted in Tajikistan renting the land, reservoir, and HPP to Uzbekistan. After the USSR’s sudden collapse, cooperation between the two countries quickly deteriorated on all fronts. The ownership rights of the Farhod HPP, dam, and territory was a visible aspect of a broader, hostile reality between the two countries – Uzbekistan began erecting barbed wire fences and planting minefields along disputed territories, terminated interstate air travel, and implemented a visa regime among other unilateral actions.
Against this background, some instances of interstate cooperation on territorial issues did occur, such as the April 2002 signing of a bilateral agreement on border delimitation and demarcation by Tajik and Uzbek parties. This agreement settled 85% of disputed land of their 1,333 kilometer border. However, among the unresolved territory lay the equally disputed Farhod reservoir and HPP. The dam, HPP, and territory remained under Uzbek control since the Soviet agreements, but Tajikistan had refused to recognize this after the countries became independent. Moreover, despite the progress on territorial dispute resolution, the events surrounding the Farhod HPP during the summer of 2002 were in direct opposition to what the progress from the April talks of the same year seemed to suggest.
A zero-casualty Tajik military operation unilaterally reclaimed ownership of both the land and the infrastructure, showing how the most difficult aspects of cooperation continued to remain. After a long pause in border talks, the agreements signed in April of 2002 were ratified in February 2009, but the talks were limited in their attempt to further resolve territorial issues. During the talks, Tajikistan refused to agree to Uzbekistan’s proposal to officially give up the Farhod territory to Tajikistan if the Farhod HPP would become Uzbek property; negotiations stalled further for another several years. Some intermittent talks about border cooperation were attempted in 2012 and 2015 to settle the approximate 60 km of unresolved border, but progress continued to stagnate until the rise of the newly elected president, Shavkat Mirziyoev, in late 2016.
In November 2016, only a few months after the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, a delegation of Tajiks and Uzbeks was appointed to once again discuss the remaining disputed land. In late February and early March of 2018, a commission for delineation of mutual borders met in Ferghana, with the participation of both Tajik and Uzbek Prime Ministers. Border issues were further discussed during Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev’s visit to Tajikistan on March 9-10, and the discussions were viewed favorably by both sides.
The president’s reception was met with high anticipation and praise by the president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, signaling a thaw in overall relations between the countries. Twenty-seven bilateral agreements were signed during the visit on intergovernmental cooperation, including a familiar-sounding document that officially transferred the Farhod Dam territory to Tajikistan, and the Farhod HPP itself (including its equipment and infrastructure) to Uzbekistan. This effectively ended the age-old point of contention.
This apparent turnaround from the Tajikistan side, which refused a similar agreement in 2009, occurs within the context of greater cooperation between the two countries on all fronts, as exemplified by the agreements and President Mirziyoev’s positive stance on regional cooperation. In further evidence of mutual cooperation on water resource management, during that same visit, Mirziyoev expressed support for the enormous Rogun Hydropower Plant construction project in Tajikistan, and even went so far as to propose the possibility of aiding in its construction. Under President Karimov, Uzbek support of upstream countries in dam development was entirely unthinkable. Territorial cooperation seems to be an important step to broader cooperation in the sphere of energy and water distribution between the two countries, as tangibly exemplified by the Farhod dispute.
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Image source: Tajikistan Presidential Administration | eurasianet.org
About the Author
Sidney Balaban is an intern with the ERA Institute’s Central Asia Watch (CAW) Project.
This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).