Komron Khidoyatzoda: The Problems of Tajikistan’s Ascension to the EaEU in the Context of Modern Eurasian Conflicts
“Tajikistan is waiting for Russia to create certain programs within the framework of the EaEU for the real sector of the economy, joint industrialization along the lines of the activities of the Russian-Kyrgyz Development Fund, and the realization of Dushanbe’s energy projects as well as the solving of disputes with Uzbekistan. Additionally, the agenda calls for the creation of direct rail links with other EaEU member-states and compensation for what Tajik officials view to be unavoidable short-term losses in customs duties for Tajikistan,” – political scientist Komron Khidoyatzoda examines the difficult questions and expectations of Tajikistan regarding cooperation with the EaEU in this CABAR.asia exclusive.
In the spring of 2014 the Leader of the Nation, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, announced that Tajikistan is analyzing the economic basis and legal documents of the Eurasian Economic Union and does not rule out joining the Union. Currently, the possible consequences stemming from Tajikistan’s joining the EaEU are currently being comprehensively examined by a special expert group under the auspices of the President, which includes representatives from the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade and the Eurasian Economic Commission. The “Eurasian Development” Central Asian Expert Club was also founded. In 2014 CAEC experts developed a road map for EaEU ascension that laid out the strategic approaches to the issue of Tajikistan joining the EaEU.
However, in Tajik society the idea of the EaEU’s creation and active discussion of Tajikistan’s prospects for joining the Union are met with mixed reactions. Some believe that joining the EaEU would negatively impact the country’s economic stability, while others claim that this process would be economically beneficial for the country. Officials have “pressed pause” for now, stating that it is necessary to comprehensively study the issue before going forward.
The pro-western segment of Tajik society did not like the idea of creating the EaEU from the very beginning. Warning of Russia’s intentions to recreate the USSR in service to its own narrow interests, they claim that Tajikistan on a legal level will lose the Tajik people’s hard-earned sovereignty. Opponents also call the country’s ascension to the EaEU pointless as long as Russia is under the sway of western sanctions. Some experts not receptive to Tajikistan’s participation in the EaEU also point to losses in customs duties.
Conflicts in the post-Soviet space in which Russia is forced to defend its national interests become openings for criticism of Russian foreign policy and accusations of the country being an aggressor. Central Asia, and the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan in particular, plays a leading role in Russia’s efforts to provide for its national security and defend its national interests. This region has gained a new meaning in the Kremlin’s foreign policy. The Kremlin has been forced to shift the vector of its foreign policy towards Asia due to the events in Ukraine and the subsequent worsening of relations between Moscow and the West. The conflict in Ukraine became a marker of sorts delineating different approaches to Central Asia’s integration prospects under the auspices of the Russian Federation. Russia’s opponents are seizing the opportunity to criticize her by speaking out against the integration projects in which she plays a leading role (The Customs Union and EaEU).
The 2-5 April 2016 fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, the first major hostilities since the signing of the 1994 ceasefire, placed Russia in a difficult position. In our view, relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia are of equal importance for Russia. Armenia is a strategic partner of the Russian Federation as a member of both the CSTO and the EaEU, but Russia’s decision to continue supplying weapons to Azerbaijan after the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has led to serious discontent in Armenian society and among the political leadership in Yerevan. During his 7 April 2016 meeting with Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, Armenian President Serge Sargsyan said, “there has been a large uproar in Armenia due to the fact that the Azeris made full use of the weapons that they had recently received from Russia.”
All of these events have played into the hands of the opponents of Tajikistan’s Eurasian integration efforts, and these critics warn of a possible repeat of the Ukrainian events in Tajikistan if Dushanbe joins or refuses to join the EaEU. Some experts feel that Russia does not pursue friendly policies based on mutual partnerships towards its CSTO and EaEU allies as the Armenian case seemingly revealed.
Nevertheless, there are significantly more supporters of Tajikistan’s integration with the Union among the public as well as among both local and foreign experts.
In 2015 trade turnover between Tajikistan and the founding members of the EaEU – Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan – was over $1.83 billion, which is nearly 42% of total foreign trade turnover. For the first 4 months of 2016, Russia and Kazakhstan were among the top three primary trade partners of Tajikistan with $480 million in trade, which is more than 41% of the $1.185 billion in total external trade from January to April 2016. Supporters of Tajikistan’s EaEU ascension use these indicators as an argument in favor of integration with the Union.
Table 1. Primary Trade Partners of Tajikistan, 2015
Table 2. Primary Trade Partners of Tajikistan, January – April 2016
Experts that do not want to view Tajikistan as the “poor cousin” of more powerful member-states point to a number of the country’s competitive economic spheres: energy, agriculture and textiles. Expanding the market for these commodities provides a chance to seriously increase the sales of Tajik businesses. In particular, joining the EaEU would lead to tremendous possibilities for increasing the supply of Tajik agricultural products to a massive market 20 times larger than the domestic market. With western sanctions against Russia and a cooling in Russo-Turkish relations, Tajikistan has a chance to take Turkey’s place in exporting fruits and vegetables. The Leader of the Nation, Tajik President Rahmon, has already ordered an increase in the production of fruits and vegetables for export to Russia.
Supporters of Dushanbe’s participation in the EaEU point to the labor migration factor.
The situation facing of labor migrants in Russia is considered to be excessively complex. A severe lack of employment opportunities in the country combined with the return of deported labor migrants creates conditions for the radicalization of youth.
The fundamental importance of migration for bilateral relations between Russia and Tajikistan will persist in the long-term and will be the primary motivation for Tajikistan’s possible ascension to the Eurasian Economic Union. In general, labor migration remains the most powerful resource for Russian social and economic influence over the situation within Tajikistan.
The serious causes of the Tajik recession have been the devaluation of the ruble, economic instability in Russia, and a reduction in foreign hard currency flows into the country, which have all coincided with a gradual tightening of Russian migration legislation. Scheduled changes to this legislation entered into effect on 1 January 2015 and require that migrants from CIS states enter the Russian Federation with passports as opposed to internal ID cards as well as pass tests on Russian language and the basis and history of the Russian constitutional order. The changes have expanded the patent system to additional categories of workers and tightened responsibility for breaking migration law. In 2014, Tajik labor migrants sent $3.8 billion home in remittances, which is almost half of the Tajik GDP. Today, these funds are vital for millions of citizens as well as practically the entire economy including, for example, the banking sector, airlines and the entire market for goods and services. In 2015, this amount decreased by more than 30% due to the mass deportation of Tajik citizens. According to data from the Tajik Migration Service more than 300,000 Tajik migrants have been deported.
Eurasian integration is of particular importance for Tajikistan in its efforts to provide for internal security and prevent young Tajiks from being recruited into terrorist organizations.
Additionally, proponents of integration note that Tajikistan joining the EaEU would create conditions for economic modernization and the restoration of large industrial enterprises that were destroyed during the civil war. This would naturally lead to an improvement in the population’s standard of living through the creation of new employment opportunities, which would subsequently decrease Tajikistan’s economic dependence on external factors.
Among the opponents of Tajik EaEU integration are some external powers, which actively speak out against any possible integration with the EaEU.
In the end of 2015, the Tajik ambassador in Riyadh announced that Tajikistan was seriously considering joining the Saudi-led coalition fighting international terrorism. Since the beginning of 2016, Rahmon has made official visits to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, where he discussed matters of cooperation in energy, transport, road construction, agriculture and security with the leadership of these countries. One may conclude that Dushanbe is looking for alternatives to Chinese, Russian, and Iranian investment in important economic spheres. Above all else, Dushanbe is hoping for Saudi investment in the construction of the Rogun HPP, which is Tajikistan’s great hope to improve the socio-economic conditions nationwide and to pull the country out of the energy crisis. Accordingly, as an ally of the United States, Saudi Arabia may try to shift the political and economic trajectory of Tajikistan towards itself with investment and seek to prevent Tajikistan’s ascension to the EaEU.
China is another of Dushanbe’s important economic partners. Chinese investment is vital for Tajik economic development, and as such Tajikistan is interested in participating in China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Authorities are worried that Tajik membership in the EaEU could negatively impact the level of economic assistance from China. However, considering the successful pairing of the EaEU and SREB, one must note that Eurasian integration will lead to an increase in the flow of investment and improvements in the standard of living of Tajiks. Beijing recognizes Russia’s special role in Tajikistan and will never, in our view, enter into a direct confrontation with Moscow.
In the face of the rapidly strengthening Russian and Chinese influence in this region, steps have been taken by other international actors such as the US, EU, Japan, Turkey, and Iran among others.
Russia’s political opponents, represented by the US, EU and their allies, have begun challenging Russian influence in Central Asia and have decided that the financial crisis and the collapse of a few joint projects provide an opportunity to push Russia out of the region. These actors seem to forget that Russian influence in the region stems from one important factor lacking to each and every one of them – experience living as part of a single state.
It is obvious that Tajikistan is attempting to build bilateral relations with external political powers in keeping with its own national interests and foreign policy priorities. It is pursuing a multivector foreign policy orientated towards cooperation with the greatest possible number of external partners. Tajikistan views relations with the US and its partners, who have begun to more actively invest in Tajik economic development, to be as important as relations with the Sino-Russian “alliance”. Undoubtedly, Russia is seen in Tajikistan as a leader and a close ally, but the number of powerful and influential players – US allies, whose policies are aimed at reducing the role of Russia in Tajikistan – increases and their impact on the economic and political situation in the country is becoming more tangible.
Tajikistan’s ascension to the Eurasian Economic Union is an imperative of our times. In our view, Tajikistan has no other options, because integration will provide employment opportunities for the domestic labor force, which is growing annually by 140,000 – 150,000 people. However, the question remaining is one of the imperatives to train high-qualified workers capable of being competitive on the international labor market.
For now, Tajikistan is worried about losing customs duties after EaEU integration. As has been known for some time, all funds earned from customs duties earned from imports from other countries will be transferred to the EaEU’s general budget. These funds will then be disbursed to member-states in accordance with a predetermined share. For example, Kyrgyzstan’s share has been set at 1.9%, and it is likely that this figure for Tajikistan will not be above 1.5-2%.
According to a recent survey, more than 70% of Tajik respondents are for close cooperation with Russia and for integration with the Eurasian Economic Union. In August 2015, Kyrgyzstan became a full member of the EaEU. This northern neighbor has been a full EaEU member for more than 10 months, but Dushanbe has yet to make an official, concrete announcement. We can assume that the Tajik government is currently waiting for certain preferential conditions from Russia in exchange for the country’s ascension to the EaEU.
Tajikistan, whose economy is the most remittance-dependent in the world and seriously dependent on external support, is in need of industrialization and development of the real sector of the economy. Tajikistan is waiting for Russia to create certain programs within the framework of the EaEU for the real sector of the economy, joint industrialization along the lines of the activities of the Russian-Kyrgyz Development Fund, and the realization of Dushanbe’s energy projects as well as the solving of disputes with Uzbekistan. Additionally, the agenda calls for the creation of direct rail links with other EaEU member-states and compensation for what Tajik officials view to be unavoidable short-term losses in customs duties for Tajikistan. Actively including Russia in solving these issues will be an active factor in the process of Tajikistan’s Eurasian integration.
Currently, informational support is very important for the integration process. It would have been very important at this time to provide concrete examples of the benefits joining the EaEU has already provided to Kyrgyzstan. There is a serious deficit of quality information regarding the possible consequences of integration with the Eurasian Economic Union. This is one of the main obstacles to more active consideration of the issue and developing stronger negotiating positions for the country in its relationship with the EaEU.
Tajikistan’s ascension to the EaEU could provide a stimulus for improving Tajik-Uzbek relations, which have deteriorated due to Dushanbe’s intentions to build the Rogun HPP itself.
The EaEU could become a mechanism for removing existing contradictions between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on a systemic level. During Putin’s visit to Tashkent in December 2014 questions were raised regarding possible cooperation between Uzbekistan and the EaEU and the creation of a free trade zone in exchange for writing off large debts held by Russia. On the other hand, considering the caution and pragmatism of Uzbek foreign policy, this process will likely go unresolved in the near future. Considering the process from an exclusively political point-of-view, the Uzbek leadership continues to view Eurasian integration as a threat of a restoration of the Soviet Union.
Tajikistan deciding to join the EaEU as well as the inclusion of Uzbekistan in the work of the Union, at least at the level of a FTA, will positively impact the strengthening of the socio-economic conditions in each country and will lead to an improvement in the welfare of the Uzbek and Tajik people.
Sooner or later Tajikistan will ascend to the EaEU, but the question of when and under what conditions remains open. According to the most positive prognoses, Tajikistan could announce its intention to integrate with the EaEU in the next 1.5 – 2 years.
The Republic of Tajikistan would receive a number of strategic advantages by joining the EaEU. First, the lives of Tajik labor migrants in Russia would improve, and they would have the ability to seek employment in any of the EaEU’s member-states in keeping with the principles of the free movement of labor. CAEC experts estimate that Tajik labor migrants would receive an additional $1 billion annually due to no longer being forced to waste time and money on Russian language exams, health insurance, and a patent. Consequently, this money would be sent back home, which would improve the country’s socio-economic condition.
Tajikistan could also become a leader in cotton production and improve the textile industry’s production, which would create new employment opportunities, increase the national GDP and salaries, and lower the level of radicalization of local youth. Another plus for Tajikistan would be the increase in direct investment from EaEU member-states into the hydropower and banking sectors in particular.
Despite the attractiveness of this new integration union, Tajikistan, in the case of Eurasian integration, will undoubtedly face many internal and external problems. First would be the threat of losing western investment, which are vital to nation’s troubled economy. Integration into the EaEU could also negatively impact the character of relations between Dushanbe and the Arab world, whose countries have begun multimillion-dollar investments into the Tajik economy and are actively attempting to reorient Tajik foreign policy towards them.
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 ASIA-Plus. “Tajikistan is ready to a fivefold increase in the export of fruits and vegetables in Russia (Таджикистан готов в пять раз увеличить экспорт плодоовощной продукции в Россию).” 29 March 2016. Accessed 29 July 2016. http://www.toptj.com/m/news/2016/03/29/tadzhikistan-gotov-v-pyat-raz-uvelichit-eksport-plodoovoshnoy-produkcii-v-rossiyu
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Author: Komron Khidoyatzoda, Chairmen of the Youth Wing of the “Eurasian Development” Central Asian Expert Club (Tajikistan, Dushanbe)
The views of the author may not coincide with the position of CABAR.asia