For most Tajiks, Russia plays a huge role in their families’ well being: Tajikistan’s economy is deeply dependent on remittances sent from its labor migrants in Russia; Tajikistan imports 90 percent of its oil products from Russia; and twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia remains one of Tajikistan’s largest trade partners.
On September 26, politicians from both countries met in Dushanbe to discuss economic integration. Their roundtable came the week before a scheduled visit from the architect of post-Soviet reintegration himself, President Vladimir Putin. At a widely publicized roundtable, the two sides cheerfully discussed the idea of Tajikistan’s accession to the Moscow-led Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. It turns out the topic will be on Putin’s agenda – a touch of brotherly bonhomie among a set of thornier subjects – and apparently has Dushanbe’s full support.
"The admission of Tajikistan to the Customs Union will be a significant step towards economic integration with Russia and other Customs Union members," said a statement by Tajikistan’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, carried by Interfax. The ministry noted that membership would guarantee supplies of petrol and basic foodstuffs. (President Emomali Rakhmon had just urged his citizens to stockpile grain for the winter ahead.)
Skeptics in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have seen the Customs Union, born in 2010, as an attempt by Moscow to extend its influence in Central Asia, while doing little for ailing local industries (or even hurting the anemic local economies). Putin has touted the Customs Union as the backbone of his proposed Eurasian Union, a sort of Soviet Union-lite, to start in 2015. The skeptics worry the customs treaties will make it more expensive to import cheap consumer goods from China (and, in Kyrgyzstan’s case, ship them onward at competitive prices), thus making the countries more reliant on Russian exports.
At the roundtable, Russian Ambassador Yuri Popov noted that Tajikistan could not join until Kyrgyzstan does (as Kyrgyzstan is angling to do) because Tajikistan shares no borders with any current members. He promised, nevertheless, that membership would only benefit Tajikistan by making it easier for Tajiks to travel to Russia.
For Dushanbe, easier movement for its army of migrant laborers as well as a dependable supply of petrol would be definite wins. But Tajikistan’s proposed membership raises a few uncomfortable questions. It would, for one, undoubtedly give Russia more economic power over the country. Moreover, once goods are inside the union, they are supposed to be able to move freely. Moscow has long suggested, to Rakhmon’s apparent irritation, that it would like to retake control of Tajikistan’s porous and drug-saturated border with Afghanistan so some of those goods – namely drugs – aren’t floating up to Russia. Will the return of Russian troops to that border be a condition of membership?
Just in time for the roundtable, an article about expected fuel shortages in Russia this fall, published by the Dushanbe-based Asia-Plus news agency, highlights what a concern fuel prices are for many Tajiks. At the end of the day, readers of the article know, any Tajik resistance to joining the Customs Union could be prohibitively expensive. Moscow has changed its taxes on fuel exports to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan several times over the past two years. Rakhmon certainly understands that a sudden spike in Russian taxes on fuel deliveries to Kyrgyzstan helped force former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev out of office in 2010.
During Putin’s upcoming visit (his ambassador wouldn’t specify a date), the two presidents are also expected to sign an agreement on the future of Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan, Moscow’s largest contingent of land forces abroad. Negotiations on the basing rights, which currently expire in 2014, have been especially acrimonious. A little happy talk about economic integration could help pave over the very public disagreements Moscow and Dushanbe have been having.