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Hell in Tajikistan: Oil Discoveries a Potential Curse

Jen Alic
Monday, 13 Aug 2012 | 1:26 PM ET

A major oil find by Canada’s Tethys Petroleum in Tajikistan comes at a bad time for the Central Asian country, as the security situation is about to skyrocket out of control in a restive province on the border with Afghanistan.

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Last month, Tethys upgraded its oil and gas reserves in Bokhtar to an estimated 8.5 billion barrels of oil andcondensate and 114 trillion cubic feet of gas. Indeed, Tethys believes that discovery trumps those in the British North Sea. The company is now obtaining seismic data to pinpoint where they will establish Tajikistan’s first-ever deep, sub-salt well.

But the Bokhtar Production Sharing agreement is logistically and geopolitically challenged due to the fact that its wealth sits in the fossil-fuel-rich Amu-Darya basin, shared by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

It could have unexpected consequences for the country's dispute with its downstream neighbors over the construction of controversial hydroelectric power stations in its territory. The future of Afghanistan is also likely to pose some serious challenges to exploration and exploitation, particularly after 2014 when US forces largely withdraw.

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The discovery catapults Tajikistan from a largely insignificant country in terms of fossil fuel resources, to a major player, and exporter, overnight. It will also change Tajikistan’s entire energy policy, which relies largely on hydropower schemes along the Amu-Darya River. And its dams continue to wreak havoc on relations with its neighbours, particularly Uzbekistan, which is concerned about the impact of the dams on its own agricultural output. More to the point, Tajikistan is probably concerned that its oil success will destroy its chances of building another massive (and massively controversial) dam the justification for which is that Tajikistan has no other energy recourse.

But dam disputes are the least of Tajikistan’s problems. The country faces elections next year, and the security situation is worsening quickly. August has seen a major increase in violence, particularly near the border with Afghanistan.

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Government troops, fighting militants in the Pamir Mountains in earnest since 2010, have taken the conflict to a new height in the Badakhstan province, which borders with Afghanistan and China. This Pamir Mountain region was the scene of a bloody ethnic conflict that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fighting was halted with a 1997 peace accord, but the situation in Afghanistan has helped to reignite conflict.

On July 21, 2012, the head of the state security service was stabbed to death in Pamir province, and on July 24, leaders in the capital of Dushanbe decided this would be a good time to pick up the momentum and retaliated with full force. More than 2,000 soldiers descended on the homes of the militant gang leaders who are believed to control opium, tobacco and ruby smuggling in the province. In just over 24 hours, 30 militants were killed and 17 security forces (according to official estimates). Significantly, the government claimed to have rounded up some Afghan fighters in the melee.

Tajikistan has now sealed all border-crossing points with Afghanistan, but is allowing NATO trucks to pass through.

At the same time, the most prominent opposition party in Tajikistan appears to be a target of attacks linked to the July violence in the Pamir Mountains. One leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) was killed and another has disappeared, both in Gorno-Badakhstan. Indeed, the government’s sudden uptick in activity in the province is likely linked to presidential elections and could be an attempt to remove opposition to the president, Emomali Rakhmon, whose tenure is not stable.

Interestingly, there is little in the way of media exposure over Tajikistan’s oil discovery. Presumably, Dushanbe is attempting to determine how to use this to the incumbent’s advantage without destroying its dam dreams. But in the meantime, the government is helping to create a very volatile security situation on the Afghan border that could reverse the positive aspects of energy developments.

By Jen Alic of Oilprice.com

Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.

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