Hamrokhon Zarifi, Tajikistan’s foreign minister, recently confirmed that Tajikistan’s strategic interests are served mainly through its partnership with Russia. “Russia was, is, and will remain our strategic partner and ally. We have commitments to each other, and, on our part, we will strictly fulfill them,” he commented.
Nonetheless, his remarks appeared to be designed to deny Western media reports that he was a “pro-Western foreign minister.” He dismissed this, preferring to be regarded instead as simply pro-Tajikistan. “We are pragmatists and adhere to the open doors policy. We are ready to cooperate with all countries, first of all, in the context of attracting investment to the country, but on an equal footing, without any political pressure.” Zarifi cited the example of Tajikistan’s economic cooperation with China, which has invested around $1 billion in the Tajik economy (Itar-Tass, April 18).
There are conflicting signals from the Tajik government regarding its relationship with Russia. On April 13 the Tajik Foreign Ministry officially reported the change of Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov’s surname to “Rahmon.” The Foreign Ministry press release stated, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan officially informed the countries, with which Tajikistan has diplomatic relations, of the change in the spelling of the surname of the president of the Republic of Tajikistan from Emomali Rakhmonov to Emomali Rahmon.”
In March, the Tajik leader wanted his surname to be pronounced as “Rahmon.” The Tajik media immediately implemented the altered pronunciation of the president’s name. Rahmon also ordered civilian registry offices to use Persian names, dropping the Slavic endings of -ev and -ov when registering births. The presidential press service indicated there would be a degree of personal choice in this matter, although he clearly wants to promote a more independent and less Russian-influenced view of Tajikistan (Interfax, April 13). President Rahmon wants strong relations with Russia, but evidently also wants to tap into the Western assistance levels that have benefited his Central Asian neighbors since 9/11.
Tajikistan is also receiving increased attention from EU states, and closer bilateral and economic relations are developing as a result. President Rahmon and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas met in Dushanbe on April 17, discussing bilateral cooperation. Vaitiekunas described Tajikistan as a strategically important country for the EU, OSCE, and Lithuania. “It is very important for stability in the region and for the fight against terrorism, given that it is a kind of obstacle against drugs,” he emphasized. Agreements were signed promoting bilateral trade, as well as exploring the export of Tajik products into the EU through a Lithuanian port (Tajik TV First Channel, April 17).
Dushanbe is therefore positioning itself to appeal to Western countries interested in the security and economic potential of the region, downplaying problems within the Tajik security structures while advancing their case for security assistance efforts. Tajikistan’s armed forces face several severe personnel problems. Six Tajik conscript servicemen died in the first quarter of 2007. Two of these committed suicide, according to Tajikistan’s Military Prosecutor’s office. During the same period in 2006 the deaths of 15 servicemen were recorded. The number of such fatalities within the armed forces is apparently declining, although the authorities remain concerned by such incidents.
One area where the armed forces have made progress is in the reduction of recorded military crimes. The number of crimes committed by officers, for example, has almost halved compared to the first quarter of last year. There were 37 crimes recorded in the armed forces in 2006, which is reportedly equal to the figure for 2005. However, the most common crimes in the Tajik armed forces relate to draft dodging, desertion, and abuse of office (Avesta, April 13).
President Rahmon is fully aware that Tajikistan needs foreign security assistance, and he is also looking toward Washington. On April 13 Evan Feigenbaum, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, visited Dushanbe and emphasized the fight against terrorism, drugs, crime, and corruption as the key priorities for U.S.-Tajik cooperation.
He pointed to the importance that Washington attaches to border security, especially since the pull out of Russian border guards from Tajikistan in 2005. Promising the continued commitment of U.S. policymakers to the security of Tajikistan’s borders, Feigenbaum asserted that around $40 million had been allocated to support the enhancement of border security since 2005. Attempting to allay fears of U.S. involvement in Tajikistan he explained, “Terrorism, drugs, crime, corruption — everything that constitutes a threat to the stability of Tajikistan equally affects our own security.”
Given the political unrest in Kyrgyzstan and the strained U.S.-Uzbek security relationship since the Andijan massacre in May 2005, Washington is clearly more interested in fostering its relations with Tajikistan. Yet Feigenbaum was keen to stress the benevolent role of the United States in Central Asia, “Central Asia is not an arena of competition for influence by external powers, and Tajikistan, in turn, is not a target of the USA’s geopolitical struggle with anyone,” he suggested (Itar-Tass, April 13). President Rahmon, traditionally cast as a reliable friend of Russia, may utilize his newfound appetite for “pro-Tajik” posturing in order to pursue a more genuinely “multi-vectored” approach to foreign policy.