On September 9th, Tajikistan marks the 20th anniversary of its declaration of independence. What can be said about Tajikistan 20 years after independence? The word ‘survival’ comes to mind first and foremost. Unfortunately, Tajikistan is defined from the outside mostly by its civil war – not by any connection to the Samanid Empire or the ambitious planned hydroelectric projects. While the war officially ended in 1997, there was continued violence – a direct legacy of the conflict. However, the violence steadily declined. During my recent time in Tajikistan I felt that I was living in one of the safer places on earth. True, crime is low and the state is not exactly under siege, but there are still episodes of political violence. In the last several years there have been serious incidents such as the clashes between government security forces and what appear to be the last of the irreconcilables. Mirzo Ziyoev was killed while Ali Bedaki and Mullo Abdullo were dispatched like the sad remnants of some long-marginalized guerilla force. Of course, this came with a price: the loss of security forces who died in these clashes.
Theses recent clashes have been defined in two different ways. The first argues that the fighting was a sign of the weakness of the Tajik government and a possible prelude the state failure – however one may wish to define it. The second argument notes that all the known “trouble-makers were eliminated,” with the exception of one who has promised to go back to work and play nice. This argument relies on the fact that there are not hundreds of Mullo Abdullos and successors in the field like there are in Afghanistan. Yet the government of Tajikistan still points to other perceived threats. Frequently mentioned are the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jamaat ut-Tabligh, and other less well-known groups. Of course, few independent analysts believe that Hizb ut-Tahrir and Jamaat ut-Tabligh do anything more than talk. As for the IMU, if they are as pervasive as the governments of Central Asia believe, then I don’t understand how they are so inactive in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. For a ratio of threat assessments to actual terrorist activity, the IMU must be at the bottom of any list – worldwide.
And even further down the actual-threat list is the former Popular Front ally Mahmud Khudoyberdiev – either long-dead or long-retired. Tajikistan’s government structures occasionally bring his name up with the implication that the Uzbek government is sheltering him and hoping to repeat his 1998 incursion into Tajikistan. Whatever the case, he has done nothing since 1998 except be a useful boogeyman for some in the Tajik government.
Of course, the worst of the violent conflict in Tajikistan is long over. But for how long is “no more war” going to be good enough for the people of Tajikistan? Many experts were wrong about North Africa, Syria, etc…Will even more experts be proven wrong on Central Asia? Of course, repression + poverty does not automatically = governments being overthrown. But an analysis that goes a little deeper than the factors mentioned above is required.
Beyond terrorism and insurgency, there is the issue of a weak economy. It may be growing, but from a rather low level. Tajikistan is, in fact, the poorest of the former Soviet republics. And no country on earth relies on the cash remittances of foreign guest workers as much as Tajikistan does. All this with a rapidly growing youth population, very few of whom have decent job prospects. And, as must be mentioned, all of this is taking place in an environment of stifling corruption. Of course, President Rahmon’s master plan relies on the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric dam. The cost is far beyond the means of Tajikistan, and foreign funders are not lining up to support the project in the same way that an Iranian company stepped in to fund the completion of the Sangtuda hydroelectric project. A further complication is the downstream country of Uzbekistan, which feels strongly that the change patterns of water flow will harm its agricultural sector.
The involvement of Uzbekistan merits further attention, as the two countries have been intimately connected throughout recent history, even well before the arrival of the Russians in the region. Culturally, economically and geographically the two countries are connected at the hip. Unfortunately, the relationship is a poor one – especially between President Rahmon and President Karimov. Border crossings are now often a very difficult process, and in some rural areas the border is actually mined and patrolled by willing-to-shoot Uzbek border guards. Uzbekistan cites the dangers of drug trafficking and terrorism and won’t budge on the border issue.
As for drug trafficking, Tajikistan is at the forefront of the heroin trade as a major transit route, Yet, despite claims that drug trafficking is a threat to stability, the drug traffickers here are not of the Mexican variety. They are not in conflict with the state or with the security structures to any significant extent. There appears to be a relationship here, one that can be debated (gated PDF).
And what of Tajikistan’s role in geopolitics? It has recently affirmed its position as being firmly underneath Russia’s “security umbrella,” an obvious enough outcome.
But what of the American factor? With the withdrawal/drawdown of troops from Afghanistan in 2014, will the United States seek to bolster its position in the region, or will it move into a more isolationist phrase? That’s unknown, but what of the Tajik leadership’s perceptions? In a lengthy interview the analyst Arkady Dubnov stated:
I’ve been watching the Tajik leadership’s stance and policies over the last 20 years, and I’ve said publicly on several occasions that Dushanbe overestimates its influence in the region and in the world.
And later in the interview:
The constant refrain from Dushanbe is that if things go wrong with the Russians, they can always try with the Americans. It’s obvious game-playing.
So…Tajikistan will either be showered with American largesse or will be forgotten, or somewhere in between. As for Russia, who knows how that will work out, but Tajikistan needs Russia desperately both economically and militarily. And the Afghan factor? Speculating on how Afghanistan will come to affect its northern neighbors would require more space than is available here. Predicting future geopolitical arrangements is an exercise in futility, so I’ll end on that note.