The ongoing tension between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is causing headaches and heartache for many Tajiks.by Farrukh Ahrorov 25 June 2012
DUSHANBE | Twenty-eight-year-old Noziya Prpieva lives in northern Tajikistan, in the village of Nau just by the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border. Most people around there speak Uzbek. When she was a child the Tajik and Uzbek people intermingled freely, and it mattered little which side of the border one came from.
Nine years ago Prpieva, a Tajik, married a man who lives just over the border on the Uzbek side. Ever since, the family has been forced to split their lives between the two countries.
Prpieva wants to move to Uzbekistan to live with her husband, who stays to care for his elderly parents. But when the couple got married, they did so in a religious ceremony, unrecognized by either country. Now, even though they want to make the union official in Uzbekistan, the authorities there refuse to recognize evidence of their relationship, including their three young daughters, and therefore refuse to grant her a residence permit.
Getting married legally in Tajikistan is likewise out of the question. Among the hurdles there is a requirement that a foreign spouse buy a house for the family and live in the country for at least one year before the wedding.
As a result the couple has been forced into what is called a “guest marriage.” They visit each other two or three times a month, but without visas, they cannot be together for more than five days at a time.
“It is incredibly hard for us to live like this, both emotionally and financially,” Prpieva said. “Crossing the border is always such a pain. There is so much needless bureaucracy. We have to spend hours and hours at passport control, whatever the weather. And a huge chunk of our family budget is actually spent on these trips.”
Prpieva and her family are caught in a cold war between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that has affected how families live, what they pay for groceries, even where they pick fruit – a cold war that has lingered for years and could be heating up.
In the village of Nau, Uzbek-Tajik marriages have long been commonplace. Many of these unions began before 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and the two republics gained their independence.
According to official statistics, there are more than 3,000 marriages registered in Tajikistan between Tajik citizens and foreigners. About 1,800 of them are in the Sogd region, where the village of Nau is located. Most are Tajik-Uzbek marriages. The Uzbek-Tajik border stretches over 1,300 kilometers (81 miles), and about 80 percent of it goes through Sogd.
Parviz Raupov, who works with an aid group in Tajikistan that helps people deal with immigration issues, says the bureaucracy inflicted on these cross-border couples is extensive and nonsensical. For instance, the Tajik partner must prove that the foreign partner does not have another family back home. And, under a law that is written vaguely enough to be invoked arbitrarily, even for adults, both partners in a cross-border marriage must also have written consent of their parents to marry.
“On top of that you need written permission to marry a Tajik from the foreign ministry of the foreigner’s country,” Raupov said.
Across the border in Uzbekistan the process is no less complicated. The authorities there demand a string of documents, including a full-scale medical examination and tests for HIV and tuberculosis. And they can take up six months to consider an application.
Raupov’s organization estimates that 400 mixed couples are waiting to register their marriages in Tajikistan. In Uzbekistan’s Namangan region, along the border, every third marriage is an Uzbek-Tajik one.
“The level of mistrust between the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is huge,” Raupov said. “In each country the media wage a xenophobic and hysterical propaganda war against the neighboring state, blaming it for every ill, apparently in order to distract the attention of its own population from poverty, unemployment, and a collapsing social care system.”
Uzbeks and Tajiks complain that the local authorities on either side of the border seek bribes for registering a marriage. Some officials are alleged to request needless extra documents and to drag cases out for months until a hefty backhander is offered.
Many people are vulnerable to such corruption because they don’t know their legal rights and can’t afford lawyers. Given the hardships involved, Raupov and others interviewed for this story said parents in both countries have begun discouraging their children from marrying foreigners.
It is not just young newlyweds who are suffering. Many elderly people, unable to withstand the long waits and stress or pay the bribes to get across the border, go for years without seeing family members on the other side.
Raupov said the situation is leading to growing anti-government sentiment in both countries. “This problem affects tens of thousands of families directly and has an impact on millions of others.”
For a Tajik, visiting relatives in Uzbekistan is more than difficult – it is dangerous. In 2000, Uzbek troops planted land mines in spots along the Uzbek-Tajik border ostensibly to stem the movement of Islamic militants. Since then, little has been done to clear the minefields, as Uzbekistan will not share information with Dushanbe about the mines’ locations.
Kholboy Kimsanov, who is 70, lives in the Asht region of Tajikistan, near the Uzbek border. He has many relatives in the villages strung along the divide.
“It’s only five or 10 kilometers to those Uzbek villages but the roads are impassable due to minefields,” Kimsanov said. “I know of so many people who tried to cross over but who were killed or disabled by mines.” In 2003, his 18-year-old granddaughter and a friend were among them. They set off toward an Uzbek village to see relatives, and both were killed when one of the girls stepped on a mine.
“Many areas have only recently been marked properly with warning signs,” Kimsanov said bitterly, and blamed both governments. “You can even be killed going to collect firewood or wild fruit, or tending your sheep.”
He noted it was an international aid organization – not the local authorities – that put up warning signs and gave out safety instructions.
Official figures record that more than 80 Tajiks have been killed in the minefields and that more than 100 people have been gravely injured. According to the Tajik government, none of the victims was an Islamist guerrilla.
Kimsanov and others blamed a personal enmity between the two countries’ presidents for the impasse in relations, but the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan tension has played out on a grand scale.
Tajikistan, the poorest of the five Central Asian countries, lacks the energy resources of some of its neighbors. But it does have water, which is increasingly scarce in the region. Dushanbe is planning a large hydroelectric dam that should stem constant electricity outages and that would give it increased leverage in the region.
But Tashkent says the dam, which sits upstream of Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, will threaten irrigation of this crucial cash crop. Uzbekistan has periodically shut off natural gas it sends to Tajikistan and in 2009 removed itself from the Central Asia power grid, effectively cutting off Tajikistan from the region’s power supplies.
Uzbekistan has also blocked cargo trains from reaching Tajikistan and closed some border crossings, and both countries have raised tariffs on rail cargo in tit-for-tat moves. The transport and energy cut-offs and tariff hikes have hit Tajikistan’s industries hard and pushed up consumer prices.
Many Tajiks, for their part, blame corruption and their government’s economic policies for exorbitant prices at local markets on fruit imported from Uzbek villages just across the border.
Zebo Sanginova, 61, is a fruit and vegetables trader who lives in the town of Kanibadam in northern Tajikistan. She started in the business in Soviet era in the 1970s, when she worked in the state-run fruit company.
“Trade with Uzbekistan has never really stopped. Tajiks buy fruit, vegetables, sweets, and furniture from there. But we buy a lot less than 15 years ago,” Sanginova said, citing skyrocketing prices. “Traders have to pay bribes on both sides of the border. Otherwise the containers would be stranded in customs for weeks and weeks.”
She said complaints to the authorities about the bribes go nowhere, while, “On the other hand, nothing is done to encourage trade with Uzbekistan, to make it easier, to reduce import taxes, at least on fruit and vegetables. The people here really need cheap food.”
The head of the UN World Food Program office in Tajikistan, Alzira Ferreyra, said the Uzbek government has created unnecessary obstacles for cargo coming to Tajikistan.
“Even trains containing humanitarian aid don’t reach Tajikistan,” Ferreyra said. “This results in steadily rising prices, even for the most basic foods, and it creates food shortages.”
According to the UN World Food Program, the poorest Tajiks spend more than 70 percent of their income on food. This year the program expects to help about 551,000 people in Tajikistan this year, or about 8 percent of the population, primarily with food rations for the sick and poor, and hot meals for schoolchildren.
Tashkent says its limited rail network cannot handle the amount of rail traffic in and out of Tajikistan. Exacerbating the situation was the November explosion of a rail bridge in Uzbekistan on a line that leads to Tajikistan. Tashkent blamed terrorists, but a journalist who visited the site saw a heavily patrolled, inaccessible stretch of track that is hardly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
A source close to the Tajik government, who requested anonymity, said the blame goes both ways, and he linked the increased tension to stepped-up competition between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to supply Afghanistan with electricity. Uzbekistan dominates the field, but Tajikistan is offering its southern neighbor cheaper prices.
“Uzbekistan seeks to protect its interests and to use its geopolitical situation, which is only natural,” the source said. “There is fierce competition among Central Asian countries to enter the global markets.
“At the same time, Tajikistan, which does not have many sources of income, falls into the trap of filling its coffers by levying high import duties – and this makes even essential products unaffordable,” the source said.
He said instead of hiking tariffs, Dushanbe needs to develop its economy by rethinking its tax structure, cutting red tape for businesses, and cutting prices.
“And, shameful as it may be, I must admit that a lot of humanitarian aid, which should be distributed free of charge, in fact gets sold through commercial companies,” the source added.