The permanently tense Uzbek-Tajik relations sank to a new low in November 2011 – January 2012. Clearly being in the position of strength vis-a-vis its fairly poor neighbor, Uzbekistan makes use of its advantageous geographic location to exert pressure on Tajikistan, provoking serious socioeconomic problems in the republic.
Rail traffic stoppages resulting in delays of cargo supplies to Tajikistan began in Uzbekistan in November, 2009. In January, 2010, the Uzbek railroad company disallowed under various pretexts the passage of around 150 railcars bound for Tajikistan, and by February the number rose to 400. Tajik premier's conversation with his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev helped clear the way for 178 of the railcars stuck in Uzbekistan, but the overall situation with the transit between the two Central Asian republics remained essentially the same. According to Tajik officials, around 2,000 railcars carrying freight to Tajikistan were delayed by the Uzbek authorities since June, 2010. No railcars heading for Tajikistan's southern Khatlon province got the greenlight in early March – early May, and the total volume of freight transit via the Tajik railroad dropped by 40% over the first half of 2010. In Tajikistan, the fuel shortages which ensued put in jeopardy the sowing campaign, exposing to a critical risk the republic with a predominantly agrarian economy.
There is firm belief in Dushanbe that the rail blockade imposed by Tashkent on Tajikistan came as a response to the intensification of construction of the Rogun Dam. In 2009, the Tajik administration conducted a campaign of offering to the population the Rogun hydroelectric project shares and managed to launch the dam rebuilding process. Uzbekistan reacted by delaying freight en route to Tajikistan in an attempt to impede the Rogun construction. At the moment, Uzbekistan seems to regard the Rogun project as the key threat to its national security as the dam has a potential to reduce the availability of water resources downstream the Amu Darya. Considering that 75% of the population of Uzbekistan are rural dwellers and are employed in agriculture or adjacent sectors of the economy, a decrease in water supply for agricultural needs may have an extremely negative impact on the republic. Tajikistan completed the preparatory phase at Rogun in 2010 and announced that technically everything was in place to block the flow of the Vakhsh, a tributary of the Amu Darya. The corresponding decision to be taken by a Tajik governmental commission was put on hold pending the finalization of the World Bank's Rogun assessment study. It is indeed likely that the intensification of the Rogun hydropower plant construction is the explanation behind the new round of tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan which, even apart from the issue, have been locked in bitter disputes for years.
The conflict between the two republics saw escalation in November, 2011 following a blast at the Galaba-Amu Zang stretch of the Termez-Qurghonteppa railroad in southern Uzbekistan, not far from the Tajik and Afghan borders. The incident was promptly described as a terrorist attack by the Uzbek media and Uzbekistan suspended the Galaba-Amu Zang traffic in its wake, effectively subjecting Tajikistan's southern Khatlon province to a transit blockade. By the end of November, the number of railcars which were bound for Khatlon but got stuck in Uzbekistan reached 270. The Uzbek railroad company suggested redirecting them to Dushanbe, from where they could proceed to Tajikistan's south, but Tajikistan rejected the plan as excessively costly. In the process, Tajik experts actually contested the version by which the blast had been a terrorist act and expressed a view that, citing the incident, Tashkent seized the opportunity to put Dushanbe under pressure. Tajik railroad deputy-chief Vladimir Sobkalov said Uzbekistan's railroad company could easily restore the bridge damaged by the blast within 24 hours and stressed that Uzbekistan brushed off the Tajik offer of help in doing so.
The round of tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan affected the whole Central Asian transit network. With a reference to freight delays in Uzbekistan, the Kazakh railroad company temporarily banned the transit of freight to Afghanistan via Tajikistan and the supply of all types of cargo other than grain to Uzbekistan from November 3 till December 12. Following a request from the Turkmen railroad officials, the loading of all freight with the exception of grain and flour for subsequent delivery to Afghanistan via Serhetabat was suspended for the same period of time. Kazakh railroad CEO K. Almagambetov said as a comment on the step that the ban was due to the Uzbek railroad administration's failure to handle the freight carried via the Saryagash railroad link where 20 trains had been delayed. The developments took place in the season when the majority of Central Asians stockpile food supplies for the coming winter, and the termination of supplies from Kazakhstan immediately told on the adjacent republics' consumer markets.
Head of the UN's World Food Program (WFP) office in Tajikistan Alzira Ferreira warned on December 13 that Tajikistan's population may face food shortages as a result of the Uzbek blockade. She told that even trains carrying humanitarian aid were unable to make it to Tajikistan, and the number of trains with foodstuffs intercepted by Uzbekistan reached 23. The UN provides food aid to around 500,000 residents of the Khatlon province and to the region's 2,000 schools. According to Ferreira, the delays caused the food prices in Tajikistan to grow and were leaving increasing numbers of people in the republic without subsistence.
On January 18, Tajik railroad deputy-chief Vladimir Sobkalov charged that Uzbekistan's blocking railroad traffic to Khatlon was politically motivated. Tajik railroad official Usmon Kalandarov said the Uzbek authorities indicated that the damaged bridge would be rebuilt only when they are through with the investigation into the blast. He quoted the Uzbek side as saying that the bridge pillars had to be repaired but contended that the pillars were actually intact. By the time 298 railcars with freight for South Tajikistan, including 72 with flour, 26 with wheat, 25 with concrete, 26 with gasoline, 8 with jet fuel, 8 with gas, 3 with diesel fuel, and 56 with other types of cargo – were bogged down at the border between the republics.
The border situation further overheated due to the November 13 incident involving the death of an Uzbek borderguard. The Tajik story is that the Uzbek borderguards invaded Tajikistan while trailing smugglers who were illicitly carrying a shipment of electronic appliances, but the Uzbek officials maintain that the smugglers were drug traffickers eventually caught with 3.8 kg of heroin. Uzbekistan deployed considerable forces – tanks and artillery – in the proximity of the Tajik border in the aftermath, triggering an outbreak of panic in Tajikistan's border-area Sughd Province. Tashkent unexpectedly shut down 9 of the existing 16 checkpoints on the Uzbek-Tajik border in mid-January on the grounds that the facilities awaited renovation, while deputy head of the Tajik Customs Service Negmat Rakhmatov made it clear that Tajikistan received closure notifications concerning only some of the checkpoints and several went offline unnanouncedly. It is also worth noting in the context that since 2000 travel between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is subject to visa requirements and that the transit between the two republics via expressways or by air is completely missing.
As of today, the relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are far more unfriendly than those between any other pair of Central Asian republics. It may be an accomplished fact that the visa regime is no longer unusual for the region, but the transit blockade and recurrent fatal border-zone clashes clearly make the Uzbek-Tajik conflict the worst in Central Asia. Curiously, in the meantime Tashkent's and Dushanbe's foreign-policy priorities are fairly similar as both recently took to cultivating ties with Washington and – to counter the Russian influence – increasingly favor the US entrenchment. WikiLeaks revelations showed that Washington sees the current Tajik diplomacy chief and number one pro-Western politician Hamrokhon Zarifi as the future leader of Tajikistan, but there are no reasons to hope that his likely presidency would help defuse the Uzbek-Tajik conflict.