New Highway Key to Tajik Prosperity

Tajikistan plans a major road project which aims to help integrate the economy and reduce the country's dependence on Uzbekistan.

New Highway Key to Tajik Prosperity

Tajikistan plans a major road project which aims to help integrate the economy and reduce the country's dependence on Uzbekistan.

Tajikistan has come up with an ambitious project to build a road linking the capital, Dushanbe, to the neighbouring state of Kyrgyzstan, opening up access to other Central Asian countries and, ultimately, to China.

Makhmadiusuf Shodiev, the transport ministry spokesman, said the new highway would connect Dushanbe, Garm, Jirgatal and Karamyk in Kyrgyzstan.

The government intends to borrow foreign capital to finance the project, as the local economy, cash-strapped since the 1992-1997 civil war, cannot support such an undertaking alone.

The transport ministry has not released precise figures about its borrowing requirements, but experts believe it will not be less than 20 million US dollars. Likely sources for a loan are the Asian Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank, which have proved willing to lend for such projects in the past.

Tajikistan has already begun work on another motorway, stretching 700 km from Dushanbe to the Kulma mountain pass in China. But this project is underfunded and has no completion date. The new projected route through Kyrgyzstan is much shorter, stretching 343 km.

Major economic benefits are expected to flow from the new road. It will ease access to the impoverished eastern parts of Tajikistan, integrating the local population into the national economy. Farmers will also find it easier to transport their agricultural produce to neighbouring countries for sale.

At the same time, the road will reduce the country's dependence on Uzbekistan, which periodically blocks Tajik rail and road transit traffic through its territory, effectively isolating Tajikistan from the world.

"This will open new opportunities for Tajikistan to do business with its neighbours," one analyst said. "But the main thing is that the new road will make us independent from Uzbekistan."

Dushanbe becomes vulnerable to Tashkent when tensions arise between the two states. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, they have failed to become good neighbours. Uzbekistan accuses Tajikistan of harbouring training camps and military bases of the rebel Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, headed by Juma Namangani.

In recent years, Namangani's guerrillas have raided the border areas of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, triggering accusations from Tashkent that the Tajik government is allowing the militants to launch incursions from Tajikistan.

Dushanbe has flatly denied the allegations, in its turn accusing Uzbekistan of giving sanctuary to Makhmud Khudoiberdiyev, a former army colonel who attempted two coups in Tajikistan in 1997 and 1998. The Tajik government claims that each time the colonel's schemes have failed, he has been allowed to escape to Uzbekistan.

The tension dates back to the Soviet era, when Uzbekistan dominated Tajikistan economically. The countries both compete for Russian support in the region.

Uzbekistan's bans on transit traffic have had serious economic consequences, disrupting the delivery of vital fuels and lubricants to Tajikistan.

The stoppages cause price rises, and on occasion, severe food shortages, creating an atmosphere of panic. The experts believe the new road will at least ensure food supplies flow steadily to Tajikistan.

However, there are fears that Dushanbe may have a hard time getting sufficient loans. International banks may be wary of investing in the project, on account of the government's shaky control over the eastern regions of Garm and Jirgatal.

"Tajikistan's eastern parts are still very insecure. There are too many armed people there. Investors may get cold feet," one expert said. The area remains under the control of former rebel fighters from the United Tajik Opposition, UTO. Although they were formally pardoned and readmitted to the Tajik military, they effectively run the area. Last June, former UTO guerrillas took 15 employees of a German agricultural mission hostage and held them for several days.

Finally, investors may be worried by the continuing reports that Islamic militants from Uzbekistan who - even if not actually based in eastern Tajikistan - can move in and out of the country from Afghanistan, unchecked.

The government is determined to get the investment, however, as it cannot afford to depend for ever on Uzbekistan's erratic goodwill and needs to be able to guarantee the regular flow of food supplies.

Vladimir Davlatov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan.

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