For Tajikistan, the year 2013 was characterized by apparent tranquility even as the underlying sources of potential instability grew stronger. On the home front, the year was highlighted by a fraudulent presidential election and continued harassment of media and opposition figures, culminating in the highly controversial sentencing of Zaid Saidov. Saidov, a successful businessman and former minister of industry, was arrested in May and accused of eight crimes including bribery, polygamy and sexual relations with a minor (BBC Tajik, December 24, 2013). On Christmas day he was sentenced to 26 years in prison, a ruling which engendered major outrage, and which many Tajikistani pundits cited as the most important event of the year (BBC Tajik, December, 31, 2013). Saidov, who had previously been affiliated with the civil war–era United Tajik Opposition (UTO), had a reputation as a savvy businessman and, by all accounts, worked well with President Emomali Rahmon. However their relationship soured in April when Saidov established “New Tajikistan,” an opposition party critical of the Rahmon administration (see EDM, May 21, 2013).
News on the diplomatic front was not very positive either. The big story in December was the arrest of Iranian oligarch Babak Zanjani—a businessman with significant interests in Tajikistan and high-level government connections in Dushanbe. Zanjani, who was sanctioned in April by the United States and the European Union for his role in helping the Iranian government launder oil money in order to circumvent sanctions, was in turn arrested by the Iranian government for embezzlement on December 30. The Iranians claim he embezzled $1.9 billion by failing to transfer the laundered money to Tehran—a charge Zanjani denies, claiming instead that the money could not be transferred due to international banking sanctions (Ozodi, January 8). The National Bank of Tajikistan contends that it stopped fund transfers involving Zanjani’s Kont Investment Group on August 2 in order to comply with international sanctions and denies that it was ever used as a conduit to launder money (BBC Tajik, January 7). Zanjani is said to have invested over $200 million in various enterprises in Tajikistan, including Asian Express Airline (https://news.tj/en/news/united-states-imposes-sanctions-new-business-partner-tajikistan).
Many details of Zanjani’s case remain murky and give rise to competing accounts of what happened. However, neither account has particularly positive implications for Tajikistan. It is likely that the National Bank of Tajikistan, with tacit approval from high levels of government, was aware of and possibly also complicit in the illicit laundering of oil money from Iran, Tajikistan’s second largest foreign investor and key strategic ally. Cash-strapped and underdeveloped Tajikistan relies on Iranian investment to build infrastructure like the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric plant. However the Iranian-financed and operated plant went offline in December (ostensibly because of technical difficulties), and Iranian representatives said it will not come back online until Barqi Tojik, Tajikistan’s state-owned electricity company, repays the $28 million that it owes in back payments (Ozodi, January 8). Tensions over the repayment of Barqi Tojik’s debt predate the Zanjani affair. However, the timing of the cuts amid winter electricity shortages could be an indication that relations between Iran and Tajikistan are cooling.
Closer to home, Tajikistan is not faring much better with its traditional ally Kyrgyzstan. On January 11, a shootout occurred along their mutual border in a disputed area between the Tajikistani village of Khoja Alo and the Kyrgyzstani village of Aqsai (Ozodagon, January 11). In all, the clash injured eight people: five Kyrgyzstani soldiers, one Kyrgyzstani policeman, and two Tajikistani soldiers (Ozodi, January 14). The incident occurred while the two countries were engaged in negotiations over the demarcation of their disputed border. The perennially thorny issue had recently been revived by Kyrgyzstan’s decision to proceed with construction of the Kuktosh-Aqsai-Tamdik road, which Tajikistan claims runs through its territory (Faraj, January 11). While the two countries generally share good bilateral relations, the border regions in and around Tajikistan’s Isfara district and Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province have long been disputed and have occasionally given rise to outbreaks of violence (see EDM, June 13, 2013). While both sides are currently blaming the other for starting the shooting, neither seems to have the appetite to escalate the situation militarily.
However, on January 14, Kyrgyzstan recalled its ambassador to Dushanbe and closed the border crossings at both Gulistan-Isfara, near the site of the incident, as well as at Jirgatol-Qaramyq (Ozodi, January 14). The former closing is significant for two reasons: 1) it is the crossing used by the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan route (KKT) of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Northern Distribution Network, and 2) the Kulma pass between Tajikistan and China is closed for the winter, meaning that Chinese trucks bound for Tajikistan cannot use Kyrgyzstan as an alternate route as they typically do when Kulma closes (Times of Central Asia, January 11).
Border closures, electricity shortages, diplomatic tensions, and the harassment of opposition figures echo the problems Tajikistan faced in 2013. So if the first few weeks are any indication, Tajikistan looks forward to more of the same in 2014.