Does Tajikistan Have a Choice Amid Anti-Russian Sanctions?

AFP

For a while now, the crisis in Ukraine has remained peripheral in official Russia–Tajikistan relations. The relationship between Moscow and Dushanbe was traditionally dominated by a shared regional agenda consisting of Afghan border concerns, Tajikistan’s strained relations with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan’s SCO membership, and the prospects of integrating Tajikistan in the Eurasian Economic Union. Bilateral Russia–Tajikistan relations were also filled with many important projects in trade, energy, migration, and security. These projects and issues continued to develop independently from the Ukrainian conflict, being kept as topics for discussion in Russia and Tajikistan’s bilateral agenda, even after the exacerbation of Russia’s relations with the West in 2014. Official state relations were also sufficiently intensive.

At a first glance, Russia–Tajikistan relations have not significantly changed following Russia’s launch of a special military operation (SMO) in Ukraine. Tajikistan’s leadership stresses the country’s neutral stance avoiding statements and actions that could be interpreted as open support for any party to the conflict. Moreover, unlike Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan witnessed no public protests against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Still, there were also no rallies in support of Russia’s special military operation either. Tajikistan has distanced itself from publicly assessing Russian troops moving into Ukraine and there are no public discussions regarding this matter.

Tajikistani leadership’s caution towards the Ukrainian issue stems from a number of factors, with Tajikistan’s high economic dependence on Russia being of most significance. Russia’s Ministry of the Interior reports that over 1.7 million Tajikistani citizens entered Russia seeking work from January to June of 2022, which is almost a million more than in the same period of 2021. Such impressive figures evidence both the migration make-up rebound following border closings during the coronavirus pandemic, and Tajikistani citizens’ growing need to earn money in Russia. Shirin Amonzoda, Tajikistan’s Minister of Labor, Migration and Employment, says that 90% of all of Tajikistan’s migrants go to Russia. In August 2022, Moscow announced the resumption of railway traffic between the two states, which could additionally stimulate an influx of labor force from Tajikistan. It should be noted that both Russian and Tajik social media networks have reported alleged instances of Tajikistani migrants sent to the area of military hostilities in Ukraine. The very fact that such fake news is appearing in social media demonstrates that Tajikistani society is concerned with the possibility of being pulled into the Russia–Ukraine conflict. These fakes are mainly used to intimidate the most vulnerable group of Tajikistani citizens—migrants and their relatives—by creating a negative information backdrop for Russia’s actions in Ukraine. During the first weeks after the start of the SMO, there were also alarmist publications calling for migrants to leave Russia because the ruble’s exchange rate fell sharply and, therefore, the dollar value of wire transfers from Russia was falling, too. However, the subsequent strengthening of the ruble and the lack of a viable alternative to Russia’s labor market have gradually resulted in such discussions fizzling out. On the contrary, a strong ruble increased the dollar value of wire transfers made by labor migrants, which somewhat assuaged the situation in Tajikistan itself. Nonetheless, Tajikistan’s society is still debating Russia’s actions in Ukraine, yet these debates do not go beyond household discussions.

Even though critical posts occasionally make it to Tajik social media outlets, there is no blatant country-wide campaign against Russia’s SMO. The conflict is essentially glossed over in Tajikistan’s state-owned media, which virtually avoids mentioning Russia’s operation. Tajikistan’s leadership attempts to distance itself from public discussions of events in Ukraine, thereby upholding its neutral stance towards the situation, while also leaving room for strategic maneuvering.

Russia is Tajikistan’s key trade and economic partner—in 2021, it accounted for 21.3% of Tajikistan’s overall trade turnover (according to Tajikistan’s Ministry for Economic Development and Trade). Trade is completely dominated by Russian imports, which are 16 times greater than Tajikistan’s exports. In trade turnover, Kazakhstan takes second place, China third, with its imports also being several times greater than Tajikistan’s exports. The Russia–Ukraine conflict happened at the peak of Russia–Tajikistan trade turnover, and because of this, Dushanbe is utterly disinterested in exacerbating its relations with the key trade and economic partner.

The second reason for Tajikistan’s restraint in assessing the SMO is because the special operation was quite suddenly launched. Even though there were whispers regarding possible military hostilities between Russia and Ukraine for several months on end, the conflict’s abrupt transition into an armed stage was unexpected, both for world leaders and for the leaders of Central Asian states. For instance, in the first days of the SMO, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed its citizens in Ukraine, simply advising them to take safety precautions. Tajikistan avoided any detailed political statements that could be interpreted as support for any of the parties to the conflict, or that would, at the very least, explicate the stance of Tajikistan’s authorities on the matter. Ukraine was of secondary importance at the meetings between Tajikistan’s officials and their Russian counterparts held after the start of the special operation. These meetings mostly emphasized their bilateral agenda and regional security issues.

Tajikistan’s neutral stance on Ukraine translates its desire to avoid direct actions violating the country’s own status quo. Tajikistan did not recognize the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, as it had not recognized Crimea as part of Russia; however, Tajikistan abstained when the UN General Assembly voted on the resolutions condemning Russian troops entering Ukraine. It should be added that Tajikistani officials generally share Russia’s anti-nationalist rhetoric. In 2019, Tajikistan became one of the countries that supported the resolution condemning the glorification of Nazism and racism that Russia proposed to the UN General Assembly. Already at the height of the special operation, Davlatshoh Gulmahmadzoda, Tajikistan’s Ambassador to Russia, wrote an article for Russia’s International Affairs journal noting that preserving the memory of the Great Patriotic War victory is the sacred duty of both states. Tajikistan thereby emphasizes that it shares Russia’s narrative on the inadmissibility of Nazism and opposes the revisionism of the 1941-1945 historic events.

Russia’s support in the upcoming 2028-2029 elections of non-permanent members of the UN Security Council is extremely important for Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon nominated his country in the fall of 2021; prior to that, only Kazakhstan held a non-permanent member status in 2017–2018. Tajikistan goes to these elections with an anti-terrorist agenda, as well as with initiatives in regional security concerning the situation in Afghanistan. This means that focusing on the Ukrainian issue is not in the interests of Tajikistan’s leadership. Additionally, in stressing its neutral stance, Tajikistan is the only state in Central Asia not to have sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Tajikistan fears the West’s secondary sanctions that could be imposed on states that openly support Russia’s special operation, especially since the U.S. has already made it known that it considers Central Asia (and Tajikistan in particular) a potential transit route for delivering sanctions-hit goods to Russia. This means the U.S. reserves the right to extend sanctions to those who will re-export sanctions-hit commodities to Russia. Restrictions apply to goods that can be used for military purposes, and the very fact that Tajikistan is on that list suggests that its trade and economic transactions are under external control and could produce unfavorable consequences for Tajikistan.

Dushanbe’s stress on neutrality is also determined by its fears of losing Washington’s economic aid. In April to June of 2022, as part of their Central Asia tours, four high-ranking American officials visited Tajikistan in a row: Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu whose delegation included quite a few high-ranking officials (Director for Russia and Central Asia at the National Security Council, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, U.S. Agency for International Development Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Asia, and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy), and Commander of the United States Central Command Michael Erik Kurilla. In addition to the standard list of topical security agenda items, every meeting touched upon matters of further economic support for Tajikistan. By building up contacts with Tajikistan while simultaneously controlling its foreign trade with its key partner, the U.S. wants to limit Tajikistan’s bilateral relations with Russia.

Finally, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Tajikistan intends to view this organization as a resource in case Dushanbe loses control of the situation in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). January 2022 set a precedent of resorting to the CSTO’s forces in Kazakhstan to protect a member state, and this precedent is important for Tajikistan, should a similar situation develop in its own territory. May 2022 saw mass protests in the GBAO; Tajikistan’s authorities called these protests a terrorist attack. Protesters themselves, however, see their conflict with Dushanbe primarily as a political confrontation between a region and the country’s central government. Even though the peak of tensions was assuaged, the GBAO still has a high conflict potential. Tajikistan’s leadership wants to have the CSTO at its disposal, or at the very least as a possible way of getting external support for their actions.

April 8, 2022 marked the 30th anniversary of the Russia–Tajikistan diplomatic relations. Throughout the years, the parties have signed over 300 agreements with the most fundamental being the 21st century-focused Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance as well as the Contract on Allied Interaction. Tajikistan is part to most integrations in the post-Soviet space, where Russia is a member, except for the EAEU. Russia and Tajikistan are building up their trade turnover that, according to official data, grew by 50% in the first six months of 2022. Russia has also taken several steps towards bolstering cooperation in Tajikistan’s industrial, agrarian, cultural, and humanitarian spheres. Among the important projects includes building schools where the Russian language is the primary language of instruction, as are their teachers. Russian educators are sent to Tajikistan’s remote regions as part of the “Russian Teacher Abroad” project. Tajikistan is home to several branches of Russian universities (Lomonosov Moscow State University, The National University of Science and Technology (MISIS), and, and The National Research University “Moscow Power Engineering Institute”) in addition to the joint Russian-Tajik Slavonic University which also enrolls students. In 2021, Russia increased quotas for Tajik students who want to be educated in Russian universities.

In addition, Vladimir Putin choosing Tajikistan as his first official state visit destination since the start of the SMO was a significant indicator of the Tajikistan’s importance in Russia’s foreign policy. As expected, the leaders did not publicly broach Ukraine-related issues and spoke primarily on regional security problems. Nevertheless, the fact that Vladimir Putin chose Tajikistan for his first official state visit testifies to Russia’s intention to preserve the current cooperation dynamics and, despite a lack of clear support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, to continue developing its relations with Tajikistan. The first Russian official to visit Tajikistan when the special operation was already underway was Speaker of the Federation Council Valentina Matvienko, who arrived in Dushanbe on February 24, 2022.

Russia’s leadership thereby signaled that the special operation in Ukraine would not diminish the importance of Central Asia to Russia and that the Russian leadership would continue to remain focused on the region. It is also important for Russia to have guaranteed security along the Afghan border, where currently Russian troops are stationed, and to coordinate assessments regarding the political situation in Afghanistan itself.

Prior to the start of the SMO, in addition to security concerns, Russia and Tajikistan’s bilateral agenda featured the prospects of Tajikistan’s integration into the EAEU. Even though the matter of Tajikistan’s possible accession to the Eurasian Economic Union was discussed at length domestically, it never translated into a real project (unlike in the case of Uzbekistan that became an observer at the EAEU). Until recently, Tajikistan was the only country in the CIS where such a scenario was a possibility. However, sanctions pressure on Russia and Belarus, the two leaders of the Eurasian integration, is most likely to take discussions of the integration scenario outside of Tajikistan’s official discourse, and the country’s authorities will focus on bolstering its bilateral ties with Russia.

Tajikistan’s overwhelming dependence on foreign subsidies coupled with low quality of life makes it vulnerable to geopolitical threats and forces its leadership to maneuver and skirt contentious issues in its relations with its key partners.

Aware of its vulnerabilities, Tajikistani leadership creates foundations for shaping a cautious approach to developing international relations. It is important in this connection to note that Tajikistan’s leadership distances itself from playing the religious card to build up its foreign political potential in Central Asia and adjacent regions. Today, Tajikistan’s predictable goals at the regional and international stage afford it broader prospects than radicalizing its stance would. This position allows Tajikistan to both maintain stable relations with Russia and develop its international agency.

Russia is still a highly attractive partner for Tajikistan in trade, economic, military, energy, cultural, and humanitarian cooperation.

Given its geographic position, ethnic and cultural characteristics, and its high dependence on foreign assistance (primarily, from Russia), Tajikistan will in any case have to shape its foreign political agenda with account for the current geopolitical situation. Regardless of whatever may be, Russia’s place in this agenda remains quite solid.

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