In the two weeks since US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a brief visit to Tajikistan, the country's state-controlled media outlets have been conspicuously silent on the topic of US-Tajik relations. The lack of media fanfare indicates that Rice's mission fell short of accomplishing its main goal halting the erosion US influence in the Central Asian nation.
Rice's stop in Dushanbe on October 13 was part of a Central Asian tour designed to bolster Washington's geopolitical position in Central Asia. Since the start of 2005 the United States has experienced a drastic loss of influence in the region, underscored by Uzbekistan's decision to evict US military personnel from an airbase. Over the same period, Russia and China have significantly enhanced their respective strategic profiles.
At an October 13 news conference, Rice said she explored a "full range" of topics during discussions with Tajik leaders, including President Imomali Rahmonov and Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov. The secretary of state was generally upbeat about the prospects for bilateral cooperation. "I believe that US-Tajik relations can be deepened and we look forward to working with Tajikistan on the many issues of mutual interest," Rice said.
Since Uzbekistan's decision to close the US air base at Karshi-Khanabad, regional analysts have speculated that the United States seeks to establish a new military facility in the region. Rice sought to dispel such speculation by insisting that Washington was not seeking to establish a permanent military base in Tajikistan. "The United States is not at this time in a position to increase our permanent presence anywhere," she said.
Nazarov stated that Rahmonov's administration "remains a partner of the United States in the international fight against terrorism, extremism and the international narcotics business." However, as soon as Rice departed the country, Tajik authorities sent unmistakable signals that when it comes to the intensifying contest for geopolitical dominance in Central Asia, Dushanbe is now firmly siding with Moscow over Washington.
Rahmonov, in an interview broadcast by the Russian ORT television channel, reassured Moscow, saying: "There have not been any US military bases on the territory of Tajikistan, and there won't be any."
Tajik media paid Rice's visit scant attention in sharp contrast to the extensive coverage given two recent developments involving strategic cooperation with Russia an October 19 ceremony marking the handover of responsibility for guarding the Afghan-Tajik border from Russian to Tajik forces, and the announcement that the formation of a permanent Russian military base in Tajikistan has been completed.
At the October 19 ceremony, Rahmonov praised Russia as a "reliable ally and strategic partner," the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported. "Close cooperation with Russia meets the vital interests of Tajikistan and the whole Central Asia region," Rahmonov added.
Leaders of Tajikistan's political opposition, along with representatives of local non-governmental organizations, generally expressed disappointment with Rice's visit, saying the secretary of state's democratization rhetoric rang hollow. In Dushanbe, Rice said she sought assurances from Rahmonov that the country's presidential election, scheduled for 2006, would be "free and fair." She added that Tajikistan had a "growing multiparty system and that multiparty system needs to be protected." Opposition supporters disputed Rice's assertion concerning the state of Tajik multiparty politics, pointing out that the parliamentary election in February was blatantly rigged, adding that Rahmonov brushed aside all complaints about the conduct of the vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].