A buildup of external pressure, combined with growing internal economic stress, makes Tajikistan a Central Asian state worth keeping an eye on.
There has been an uptick of late in geopolitical jockeying over Tajikistan involving Russia and China. Beijing, in particular, has been making an aggressive push to expand its economic influence in recent years. The Chinese surge went largely unnoticed by the outside world until this January, when the Tajik parliament agreed to cede over 1,000 square kilometers of territory to China.
Unhappy about Beijing’s rising profile in Tajikistan, Russia is forcefully trying to reassert its authority in Dushanbe. Using energy exports as an instrument of coercion, the Kremlin recently raised its fuel export tariff for Tajikistan, pushing the price paid by Dushanbe for a ton of fuel up to $250 from $232. The tariff hike is coming just as Tajik farmers are preparing for the planting season.
Russia is also unhappy with Tajikistan’s efforts to contain the flow of narcotics coming out of Afghanistan. And it’s unlikely the Kremlin was reassured about Tajikistan’s commitment by President Imomali Rahmon’s recent move to place his son, Rustam, a 23 year old said to be far more interested in soccer than in public policy, in charge of the state agency responsible for containing narcotics trafficking. Over the past few months, Moscow has become much more assertive in conveying its desire to regain responsibility for controlling the Tajik border, but Dushanbe has resisted this idea. The tariff increase, then, may be Moscow’s way of expressing its frustration.
Beyond Russia and China, Uzbekistan and Iran have shown great interest in Tajik affairs. Uzbek leaders worry about the economic fallout from Tajikistan’s plan to build the Rogun dam, a project that could help make Dushanbe economically self-reliant. Not wanting to lose its currently economic dominant position vis a vis Tajikistan, Tashkent is doing all it can to keep Dushanbe off balance. The state-controlled Uzbek press, for example, has published provocative stories about the possibility of food shortages in Tajikistan stoking Egypt-style unrest.
Iran, on the other hand, has shown interest in expanding its economic presence in the country. Despite the close cultural bonds that connect Tajikistan and Iran, Rahmon’s administration is leery of Tehran, mainly because of the Iranian leadership’s perceived links to radical Islamic causes. Since last summer, when Tajik government security forces struggled to contain militants in the Rasht Valley to the east of Dushanbe, Rahmon has implemented a series of measures designed to combat the spread of radical religious views. These measures have included the closure of mosques and the ordering home of students who were studying theology at foreign universities and madrasahs. Such measures, especially the student recall, could end up boomeranging on the government. According to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report, only 5 percent of the 1,200 students who were recalled have enrolled in Tajik universities, and even some of those who managed to gain admittance report being discontent with Tajik academic standards.
On the domestic front, the Tajik economy remains in alarming shape. Rising prices for food, coupled with the squeeze applied by the rise in Russian fuel tariffs, will only ratchet up the inflationary pain felt by Tajiks. To exacerbate existing problems, the government drastically cut power supplies on March 24. Outside of Dushanbe power is now being limited to two or three hours a day. The water in the Nurek dam, meanwhile, is dangerously low. If the water level falls only another 1.4 meters, the hydropower plant at Nurek may have to suspend operations. A lack of rainfall so far this March is also raising the possibility of drought.
Given the array of bad economic news, it’s no surprise that Rahmon’s popularity among Tajiks is low. A recent public opinion poll, published by the Tojnews information agency, showed that only 6.5 percent of respondents had trust in the president.
All of these indicators raise questions about the future stability of Tajikistan. With Russia, China, Iran and Uzbekistan all circling menacingly, and with discontent brewing in Dushanbe, Rahmon’s administration will be challenged more than ever before to maintain its grip on power.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.