Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 84

Of all the post-Soviet Central Asian “Stans,” Tajikistan has had the roughest path toward stability and prosperity. The year after the USSR collapsed in December 1991, Tajikistan descended into a brutal civil war. By the time it ended with a UN-brokered agreement in 1997, fratricidal strife had claimed more than 50,000 lives and more than one-tenth of the population had fled the country. The country’s slow recovery in the ensuing decade has left an estimated two-thirds of Tajikistan’s six million inhabitants living below the poverty line.

Tajikistan, despite its immense traumas, is now emerging from the rubble into the global community, and this transition is especially notable in its foreign policy, which has steadily been diversifying away from Moscow’s sole domination.

In one of the more striking examples of Dushanbe’s efforts to expand its international contacts, Vietnam’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Tajikistan, Le Van Toan, told journalists following the ceremony of presenting his credentials and discussions with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, “We have strong political relations with Tajikistan, but economic relations have unfortunately not yet been initiated. In the future it is planned for the two countries’ business circles to hold a business forum, where issues of trade and economic cooperation will be discussed” (Avesta, April 30).

It is hardly a secret that Asian countries are interested in Central Asia’s energy reserves. In the most interesting of his comments Le said, “As far as I know, Tajikistan has abundant reserves of coal, which is necessary to Vietnam, and in the future we intend to cooperate in extracting this mineral.”

Le obviously was referring to investment in Tajikistan, not exports, as the countries are separated by over 2,000 miles of Chinese territory. Le was only partially correct in his assessment. While Tajikistan does have massive coal reserves, its mining industry has essentially been in freefall since 1991. The U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration for the 1997 to 2007 period places Tajik production of coal and its byproducts at essentially zero, while the 2008 edition of the CIA World Factbook contains no statistics for Tajik coal production (Tajikistan Energy Profile, www.eia.doe.gov). Tajikistan in fact barters its water for Uzbek natural gas during the winter months and coal in the summer.

Given the country’s dire economic situation, Dushanbe will take foreign investment from whatever corner, however modest. Tajikistan currently contains 29 coalfields, with those of Fan-Yagnob, Kishtut-Zauran, Magiyan and Nazaraylock being the most substantial. According to the Tajik government, the country’s confirmed coal deposits total more than 15.3 billion tons, an estimated 41 percent of Central Asia’s reserves (Press release, Third International Tajikistan Exhibition, “Mountainous Equipment, Enrichment and Extraction of Ores and Minerals,” to be held in Dushanbe, September 18-20, 2008). Vietnam epitomizes second-tier investors eyeing Central Asia; but looming over the new ‘Great Game” is Russia, which increasingly has the economic clout to recover its lost political dominance, something that all the “Stans’ are eager to avoid.

In its relations with Russia, it is as if they had never separated. Following the collapse of the USSR, the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division remained in Tajikistan, and its presence was formalized in the Russian-Tajik treaty of treaty of friendship, collaboration and mutual aid in May 1993. Russian border guards continued to patrol Tajikistan’s porous 870-mile frontier with Afghanistan. The last Russian border guards completed their withdrawal in July 2005, but the 201st Motorized Rifle Division remains.

Unfortunately for Tajikistan, American interest has largely been focused on its value as a staging ground into Afghanistan for Washington’s war on terror. In February 2003 Tajikistan opened its first embassy in Washington, D.C., in temporary offices; and it formally opened its first permanent chancery building in March 2004 (Background note: Tajikistan, U.S. Department of State, December 2007). More recently, however, Washington has begun to provide sorely needed financial aid, assisting with the construction of the $3.2 billion Dashtidjuma Hydroelectric Power Plant on the Panj River. But aid to Tajikistan remains heavily influenced by America’s continuing strategic interest in Afghanistan. This was epitomized by Washington’s underwriting the $37 million bridge project across the Panj, linking Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which opened in August 2007 (www.trade.gov/afghanistan/).

This leaves Tajikistan’s relations with its eastern economic superpower neighbor, China, with which it shares a 257-mile border. Tajikistan has moved on a number of issues of interest to Beijing, in 2006 pledging to begin demarcation of their revised boundary set in the 2002 delimitation agreement. During the past decade, the two nations have deepened their bilateral relations substantially.

Tajikistan’s Ambassador to China Rashid Alimov noted during a recent interview that he was first in China in 1993 as a member of a delegation that accompanied President Rahmon on his first official visit to another country after his inauguration. In the ensuing 15 years, Tajikistan and China have signed 105 agreements, while bilateral trade has risen from $20 million in 1997 to $524 million a decade later (Interview with Rashid Alimov, April 30, https://beijing2008.cn/).

Alimov has written a book to promote Beijing’s Olympic Games, one of China’s biggest foreign policy initiatives. Shashar pokoriaet Pekin (“Sharshar Conquers Peking”) is the story of a plucky Tajik athlete who overcomes numerous obstacles to fulfill his desire to compete in the summer Olympics (www.tajikembassychina.com). The initial press run of 8,000 copies in Russian and Chinese sold out, and the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily was sufficiently moved by the tale to place an abridged version of the book on its website. Alimov modestly said of his literary efforts, “Those who believe that the ideals of the Olympics have nothing to say are deeply mistaken.”

Maybe bridges and borders are a better metaphor for Tajikistan’s future than plucky Sharshar. In May 2004 Tajikistan and China opened a border crossing at Kulma, high in the Pamirs. Tajik officials fear, however, that rather than promoting trade, the Panj Bridge in the south has simply become a transit route for drugs and terrorism emanating northward out of Afghanistan.

Of all of Tajikistan’s neighbors, the Chinese market offers by far the greatest potential. Russia’s hardball negotiating tactics over the proposed Rogun hydroelectric plant simply have reaffirmed that Moscow’s interest in the country is largely opportunistic, while Washington remains more or less disengaged, concerned about corruption and the government’s less than democratic tendencies. Relations with China, in contrast, carry no colonial legacy or lectures on human rights, with bilateral trade instead topping Beijing’s agenda. Rather than a multitude of minor investors like Vietnam, Tajik officials are evidently hoping for a massive bilateral relationship that will begin to alleviate all the country’s problems at a stroke.

Alimov said of his volume, “My book tells a story of friendship and dreams coming true.” After suffering its worst winter in 50 years, perhaps Dushanbe’s dreams of amity with China solving some of the nation’s crushing problems is not as farfetched as it sounds.