Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 232

The U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan and ensuing realignments throughout the region, have turned Tajikistan from a strategic backwater into a strategic prize almost overnight. The twin factors of a Western stake and Western presence on the ground afford Tajikistan the chance to abandon its role as Russia’s sole satellite in Central Asia. That role, which has severely retarded the country’s recovery and development, is a legacy of the 1991-97 civil war, itself caused in part by Russian meddling.

Tajikistan is the only Central Asian country where Russian forces are based. The Tajik leadership is also a unique case in the region, in that it acceded to power from below with Moscow’s direct support, and had to rely on that support long after the end of the civil war to retain power. That dependence, however, is now loosening as the Tajik leadership enters into agreements both on the stationing of Western forces in the country and on international relief and development aid.

The war and the political changes in Afghanistan have turned Tajikistan into a deployment area for Western forces, a land bridge between Afghanistan and Central Asia, and a potentially influential actor–through ethnic ties–in the looming contest over Afghanistan’s future. In the first two roles, Tajikistan is valuable to the West and its allies. In the third role, it can be misused by Russia and, to some extent, Iran.

The geopolitical transformations seem to create a sense of historic opportunity among such local observers as the commentator for Biznes i Politika, who sees the country starting to shift away from Russia into the West’s orbit economically and, in part, culturally. While U.S. military bases are being established alongside Russian ones, it is the United States, Japan and the lending institutions influenced by them–the World Bank and Asian Development Bank–that seem poised to support Tajikistan’s development. The penetration of the internet marks the first sign of English supplanting Russian, a process likely to advance through an increased presence of Western NGOs as well. With Russia unable to offer anything in that way, this commentator considers with historic optimism that the “first stage” of Westernization has reached Central Asia and Tajikistan. That incremental process goes in parallel with the diversification of Tajikistan’s relations in Asia (Biznes i Politika [Dushanbe], December 7).

Capitalizing on the new opportunities, Tajikistan’s leadership is more actively reaching out for partners outside the Russian orbit. President Imomali Rahmonov visited Saudi Arabia last week and held talks with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdallah on economic aid, possible investment by the Saudi Fund for Development and the reciprocal opening of embassies. Rahmonov, who had over the years often behaved as the product of Soviet atheistic education, made the short pilgrimage [umrah] to Mecca during this visit (Tajik Television, December 11).

Also last week, Tajikistan’s Prime Minister Okil Okilov received a delegation from Japan’s Mitsui concern and one from Russia’s United Energy Systems to discuss the same undertaking: completion of the Roghun and Sangtuda hydropower plants, the construction of which had been abandoned at the end of the Soviet era. The Russian government has since 1997 remained noncommittal on the matter, apparently due to lack of investment funds. Japan is now considering the project, along with one to modernize Dushanbe airport’s international airport terminal (Tajik Television, December 10, 13).

While America and its allies hold the strings of the aid purse, Russia holds some strong geopolitical cards. These include the 201st motor rifle division, headquartered in Dushanbe, and ranked as the most battle worthy in the Russian army outside Chechnya. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recently mentioned a program to increase the division’s mobility, apparently by delivering new hardware, overhauling some of the existing units, and raising the division’s funding (Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei, Asia-Plus, December 7, 10). More immediately exploitable is the Tajik ethnic card, on both sides of the Tajik-Afghan border.

Moscow and some elements in the Tajik leadership, including the Tajik security services’ hierarchy, are encouraging Afghan Tajiks to claim a disproportionately large role in the new government in Kabul. Should that lead to strife with other Afghan groups, the Afghan Tajik faction could become heavily dependent on Russia’s and Tajikistan’s support, and Dushanbe would be pushed back into close links with Moscow in the process.

Some high-level officials in Dushanbe are now offering to send troops to Tajik-inhabited northern Afghanistan as part of an international, UN-authorized peacekeeping operation. The same officials are publicly opposing the idea of Pakistan contributing troops to any similar effort. Such proposals could alienate Tajikistan from the West, create a de facto alliance among Moscow, Dushanbe and the northern Afghan Tajiks, and set the stage for the creation of zones of influence in Afghanistan. Both Moscow media and Iranian state radio have publicized those views, apparently signaling that Tehran favors them. It remains unclear, however, whether those suggestions represent Dushanbe’s official position (Interfax, RIA, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), December 11, 13-14).

Meanwhile, Moscow plans to beam Russian state television broadcasts into Afghanistan, using the relay transmitter at Kolkhozobod in southern Tajikistan. The transmitter’s range reaches to Kabul and further south into Afghanistan. President Vladimir Putin’s top media and foreign policy adviser, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, discussed this plan for a Tajik-North Afghan “common information space” earlier this month with the Tajik leadership in Dushanbe (Russian and ORT Televisions, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), December 4). Such a move could involve Dushanbe in intra-Afghan strife for no reason other than to gratify a latent sense of pan-Tajik nationalism on the part of some officials (see the Monitor, November 1, 6, 9, 12, 16, 19, 21, December 5, 7;Fortnight in Review, November 30).