Episode 33. The Geopolitics of Tajikistan
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No country could possibly feel more like "the edge of the known world" than the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan. A nation where the president has been in power since '92 and has ruled the country with an iron fist, amassing a huge amount of wealth for himself using everything from Aluminum to Heroine. But things are beginning to change and Dushanbe could very soon be answering to new masters. Tajikistan is the latest battleground between Beijing and Moscow, the winner of which is yet to be decided.
Central Asia Editor for EurasiaNet
Professor of International Relations at the University of Exeter, specialising in Central Asia
Co-Author of Dictators Without Borders as well as other excellent books on Tajikistan
President of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs
Research Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University
Research Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at Chatham House
Analyst for the Centre for Analysis and Foreign Policy
Expert in the Post-Soviet Space and Eruasian Defence and Society
Part 1: The Edge of Nowhere (2:38)
With Peter Leonard we discuss the history and economy of Tajikistan. Tajikistan and the other Central Asian states are quite monolithic in their economic situation, often dependent on each other in various ways as a hold-over from Soviet-era development. Mining is a major sector, especially aluminium and gold, backed by a smaller agricultural sector, as well as remittances from migrant labourers.
Another relic of Soviet times is the rather confusing geography of Tajikistan and its neighbours, with interlocking borders and various exclaves and enclaves creating disparate regions with wildly varying degrees of development and infrastructure.
The eastern regions are the most remote, comprising the mountainous Pamir highlands, and this rough country has also been subject to political neglect, with the Pamiris citizens being seen as disloyal historically.
The Civil War in the 90’s was born out of the Soviet collapse, generating conflict between competing elites and the emergence of social currents such as nationalism and Islam into the political sphere.
The eventual victors were an uneasy coalition between former Communist elements and the southern clans, with a peace accord supported by other regional actors who were alarmed by the escalating violence.
Emomali Rahmon emerged as leader in late 1997, after a succession of unsuccessful post-war leaders, and was able to steadily consolidate his control over the government, sideling and repressing the opposition, who were integrated into the government as part of the peace deal.
Part 2: 92% (21:56)
Rahmon began his political life as a Communist Party official and leader of a collective farm, rising into higher administration. After the fall of the USSR he navigated the tides of Civil War, though he was never a warlord himself, and was instrumental in negotiating the peace accord with the opposition. In the years since he has managed to push out any rivals, often installing family members in to administrative roles. He has been accused of torturing and attempting to have opposition activists and figures assassinated.
With John Heathershaw we explore the internal politics of Tajikistan, looking at the mechanisms of repression and control. This includes the promulgation of nationalist ideology, seeking to present Tajikistan as a historic political community as a means of legitimising the post-Soviet state, as well as the nominal electoral process which takes place.
Rahmon has repeated won extremely high portions of the vote, as high as 92% in 2020. The government has sought to convey a permanent sense of stability, often only allowing soft loyalists to run ineffectual campaigns, with Rahmon as the lone serious candidate. This makes it difficult to determine how much genuine support he holds.
Rahmon has also been able to amass a considerable fortune via his families control over offshore companies, as well as his ability to control public resources and finances. The regime has been able to form a patrimonial state, with a fusion of Rahmon’s personal power and business interests allowing them to control economic life in the country.
There was much speculation recently that Rahmon would hand over power to his eldest son, Rustam, who is currently serving as Mayor of Dushanbe, but he ultimately ran himself. Heathershaw argues that a direct dynastic succession would be too nakedly cynical, and might risk other factions of the elite trying to find their own candidate. In addition, there is doubt about Rustam’s capacity to effectively govern and keep the various Tajik factions in check.
Part 3: A Smuggler's Paradise (40:18)
With Edward Lemon we consider how criminal networks and terror organisations engage with Tajikistan and vice versa. Several thousand Tajiks left the country in order to take part in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and IS in its turn established it’s so-called “Khorasan Province” which although based in and largely restricted to Afghanistan, outlined ambitions to expand into Central Asia.
Like its neighbours, Tajikistan’s government has acted to repress Islamic expression in its territory, political or otherwise, for example by declaring the Islamic Renaissance Party a Terrorist organisation.
State borders in the region tend towards being porous, and smuggling, especially of drugs and of people, is endemic. Corruption in the country’s border forces has created, in Lemon’s words, a nexus between the state and organised criminal groups, who manage the smuggling of drugs (mainly Heroin and Opium) out of Afghanistan.
China, Russia and the EU have all contributed manpower and resources to an effort to halt this trade, but with only limited success, with perhaps only 4% of drugs being seized or interdicted. Up until 2004 Russia deployed its own border forces in Tajikistan, and recently China has established its own base to this end.
Part 4: Old Lifelines, New Masters (52:36)
With Mathieu Boulègue we discuss how Tajikistan engages with the region geopolitically, especially its turbulent relationship with Uzbekistan. Competition for foreign capital, as well as disputes of the control of key rivers, are important factors. Tajikistan notably has control over the provision of hydro-electric power to both Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
Tajikistan is nominally almost entirely Sunni Muslim, but in practice many historical and local traditions have intertwined to create a fairly pacifist form of religious expression, helped by the government’s efforts to repress political Islam, though this has further generated resentment and radicalism amongst some Tajik Muslims.
In the early days of the Afghan War, America began to take a much greater interest in the central Asia region, beginning a period of investment and greater access to loans for Tajikistan and its neighbours, but this interest has been largely abandoned since 2014, with China largely filling this void today.
While no longer the sole hegemonic player in the region, Russia maintains a great deal of interest in Central Asia, including Tajikistan. Remittances from Tajik workers in Russia contribute upwards of 30% of the GDP, though this has been disrupted by COVID-19.
Russia also has a large military presence in Tajikistan, focused on countering the drug trade and countering any instability emanating from Afghanistan. As Russia declines, China has begun to fill the vacuum, and beginning in 2010 they established a series of military outposts along the Tajik-Afghan Border.
The Red Line's Tajikistan Reading List:
We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Tajikistan.
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Marcus Knoke.