Michael Petrushkov: Tajikistan in a new geopolitical reality
“A wise, far-sighted, and ‘soft’ Chinese foreign policy has in the past decade not only minimized but also reduced the influence of Russia and others countries in Tajikistan by creating a powerful pro-China lobby to influence policy both within the country and abroad” – expert Michael Petrushkov, writing specially for CABAR.asia, gives the orientation of external actors’ foreign policies in Tajikistan.
Throughout its 25-year history of independence, Tajikistan has carried out a multi-vector foreign policy, due not only to the geopolitical realities of today but also based on historical and geographical factors. In recent times, due to the unstable socio-political situation in neighboring Afghanistan, Tajikistan, located in the center of the Eurasian landmass, was not only off the main trade routes but also hit by transportation isolation. This was sometimes due to the policy of another of its neighbor’s, i.e. Uzbekistan, transport blockade. However, this fact does not possess such crucial importance on Tajikistan’s level, as does the confrontation between geopolitical players on a global and regional scale.
China and Tajikistan: growing cooperation
With China being the most powerful and most consistent geopolitical player in the region, it has seized economic leadership and continues to increase its presence in all sectors of the Tajik economy.
It should be noted that strategic sectors such as mining are almost entirely controlled by companies with Chinese capital. Chinese capital is also present in almost all new, modernizing, or reconstruction projects in all sectors of the Tajik economy. Special cases are the rental of agricultural land by Chinese farmers, the financing of energy endeavors (power station Dushanbe 1 and 2, Yavanskaya hydroelectric dam), and infrastructure projects (construction of roads and tunnels) to/from China. Of particular concern to domestic experts are China’s plans to allocate US $6 billion for the refurbishment of the Tajik aluminum plant, TALCO. In case of consent from the state authorities, the loan would be able to drive all of Tajikistan into a “debt trap” and effectively turn the country into a Chinese satellite state.
Many experts agree that China is employing its famous policy of ‘soft power’ by carrying out the most effective policies and expanding in Central Asia. China undertakes all possible avenues by not only greenlighting huge loans and grants for Tajikistan’s various projects but also by creating SMEs with state and public officials, figures, and leaders thus turning them into their lobbyists at all levels of government. A wise, far-sighted, and ‘soft’ Chinese foreign policy has in the past decade not only minimized but also reduced the influence of Russia and others countries in Tajikistan by creating a powerful pro-China lobby to influence policy both within the country and abroad.
In addition, unlike previous years, China began to building up its military presence. For example, after carrying out joint exercises in China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, it was decided to place a contingent of the People’s Liberation Army in Pakistan in order to provide protection against terrorist threats. In conjunction with this event is the conclusion of the agreement between China, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan for collective counteraction to terrorism, separatism, extremism, etc., the creation of the Antiterrorist Center for the security agencies of China and Tajikistan, and the Chinese program financing the construction and modernization of Tajik border troop infrastructure in the Khorog region. Not without reason, many experts regard the events of 2016 as a first step towards the beginning of Chinese military bases in the region with a very clear goal, to protect the Eurasian ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) transport link from terrorist threats and attacks.
The calls by some Russian politicians and public figures to introduce a visa regime for Central Asian states, the decline in integration projects and their funding, garbled Russian policy, the disappointment of unreasonably high expectations in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEC), and other recent trends, along with China’s increasing expansion in the region and implementation of OBOR, has made the creation of a Central Asian Union under the unofficial protection of China a probable reality in the near future.
US Policy in Central Asia: Winds of change?
The United States is deserving of special attention since it is the most powerful geopolitical player on the world stage.
Many experts, analyzing the events of recent years, have expressed surprise at the indistinct and oftentimes contradictory US movements in the region and agree that in many respects newly elected President Trump may determine the geopolitical realities of Tajikistan. While not excluding the possibility of active intervention in the internal politics of Central Asian countries, as in some Middle Eastern countries, other experts believe that based on the “treatment” of the last American administration the likelihood of this is minimal. However, the decisive factor in choosing this strategy of action must rely on confronting China and Russia.
An alternative scenario is based on the development of Barack Obama administration’s 5 + 1 Format and the proposed creation of a Central Asian Union (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) with external elements of governance and regulation from the US in order to create an effective response to China and Russia’s actions in the region. Many experts agree that the creation of a water and energy consortium for the completion and operation of the Rogun hydropower plant would be an important milestone in establishing effective inter-state relations and would be the basis for a Central Asian Union. Naturally, this will require the huge infusion of funds from the US and appropriate information and ideological content, which is an obstacle in implementing this strategy and tips the scales in favor of different scenarios for the whole Central Asian region.
In addition, a CA-US alliance would take control of all transport corridors necessitating the similar creation of OBOR or the EEC and thus acquire additional leverage and mechanisms for the containment of China and Russia in the Eurasian region.
Tajikistan and Russia: old friends in a new reality
Standing out as a powerful, historical geopolitical player in Central Asia is Russia. Unlike China, unfortunately, it is a geopolitical player with the most unpredictable, inconsistent, and oftentimes not amenable to comprehension policy. Due to its increasing lack of influence at multiple levels in Tajikistan’s halls of power, Russia is unable to play one of the leading roles in the country. Of course, this is primarily due to the historic community of peoples, spiritual ties, national memory, etc.
Alas, many moral landmarks and historical events are rewritten for the sake of geopolitical adversaries, and namely the Russian Federation is the most active in systematically destroying the single information, cultural, historical, educational, linguistic and, as a consequence, civilizational and value space among post-Soviet countries. Other ties such as military cooperation, joint defense and security, dependence on hydrocarbon supplies, and labor migration have replaced these.
Of course, we must recognize that these ties are very powerful and for the time being, in spite of the inconsistent, vague, and, sometimes, illogical Russian policy in the region, ensure the implementation of Moscow’s geopolitical interests. However, rising costs, a dull dissatisfaction with the policy of Russian authorities, the lack of support for Russian projects, hidden boycott initiatives, delay issues, information “stuffing”, and campaigns with anti-Russian subtext, as well as constantly evolving disagreements on different occasions showcase a systemic crisis in Russia’s Central Asian policy.
Voluntary refusal by Russian authorities to participate in significant, fashionable projects, such as the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power station or the cascade in Kyrgyzstan, has already caused considerable damage to Russia’s position and image in Central Asian society, and the lack of a broad outreach, deep expert study of the crises, management in the EEC coupled with economic problems, and failing to engage the general public in regards to EEC membership has led to the rejection of ideas of Eurasian integration among civil society in Central Asia.
Unfortunately, it must be noted that Russia has no strategy for Central Asia to date, and all their actions are simply responses to the policies carried out by other geopolitical players. In addition, we have to state with regret that the Russian expert community increasingly notes a growing degree of hubris. For example, experts’ great efforts to prove Chinese foreign policy as being absolutely peaceful, the Chinese authorities’ willingness to play a subordinate role in the Russian-Chinese tandem, Chinese contentment with the role of “little brother”, etc. Moreover, many Russian experts, politicians, and public figures are of the opinion that there are no alternative ways of development for the Central Asian countries except in partnership and conjunction with Russia. This notion is not only wrong and dangerous but was also fatal to the former Soviet Union, which disintegrated precisely because of neglecting challenges and threats.
The absence of a long-term Russian strategy for the entire Central Asian region as a whole, and Tajikistan, in particular, may result in the most unpredictable consequences. Thus, the introduction of a visa regime between Tajikistan and Russia, for the adoption of which is advocated by some Russian officials, will dramatically reduce the flow of Tajik labor migrants, which will inevitably deprive a huge number of Tajiks’ means of livelihood and naturally lead to a social explosion. How and who will benefit from the broad masses of the eventual protest is a huge issue. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring events have shown that such developments do not bode well for the country or its people.
In addition, labor migration is currently still the most steadfast of ties in bilateral relations. Actions by Russia’s geopolitical rivals and opponents are aimed now at the rupture or weakening of other ties, as previously described, and are largely effective. For example, neighboring China is ready to offer military cooperation, i.e. the defense of the Tajik-Afghan border, and assist with other security issues in the country. In addition, China has actively helped Tajikistan overcome dependence on light oil products supplied by Russian refineries. If one of Russia’s competitors would be able to solve the problem of Tajikistan’s labor surplus, it will inevitably lead to the loss of Russian influence in Tajikistan.
A lack of support on the part of Russia for systemically important economic projects in Tajikistan, such as the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power station, forces the Tajik authorities to seek sources of financing elsewhere. The main question of the coming years is who will eventually become the main investor of Tajik hydropower projects, which will lead to dominance not only within the country itself but on downstream states as well? And judging by the turn of events, it will not be Russia, as it is rapidly surrendering its position in the region.
The euphoria of the projected intertwining of the EEC and OBOR, coupled with a prevailing search for immediate benefits, may lead countries that possess the main Eurasian transport corridors to effectively “shut down” Tajikistan, which will inevitably impact the economic development of the country.
Afghanistan is closely tied with these developments and amidst the absence of the Tajik-Russian projects. Despite the ongoing political instability and civil strife in the country, Afghanistan is gaining momentum in economic development with each passing year. Ensuring the country with electricity, consumer goods, industrial products, and other items may be the key to the effective development of Tajikistan’s economy while ensuring Russia’s and Tajikistan’s influence on self-beneficial decision-making structures in Afghanistan. Alas, the reality is that this potential is almost never grasped.
The departure of Russian big business in Tajikistan, the weak position of Western businesses in the country, the virtual absence of Russian and foreign investment projects, and the available public and private loans due to China’s increasing activity are the cause of China’s dominance in all sectors of the Tajik economy. These factors, along with a growing indebtedness to their neighbor, weaken the position of the Tajik authorities, as they are forced to make concessions in negotiations with China. This deprives them of their ability to conduct a multi-vector foreign policy based on the interests of the country. In the near future, given the transfer policy of “dirty” industries from China to neighboring countries, Tajikistan is facing many environmental challenges.
Summing up the analysis of Tajikistan’s new geopolitical realities, it is possible to highlight such ambitious landmark projects as the Chinese OBOR, the Indian “North-South” corridor, the EEC, the US “New Silk Road” project, and others. At the same time, it is necessary to note that the stakes of the Great Game are growing and, therefore, will force the major powers to adopt a cynical and aggressive policy towards Tajikistan.
Author: Michael Petrushkov, Chairman of the Business Development Center of the Republic of Tajikistan (Dushanbe, Tajikistan).
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of CABAR.asia.