“Russia owes its positive image in Tajikistan to, first of all, migrant workers, anti-Western and pro-integration orientation of the current Russian government and to the official Russian media reflecting its political interests”, said Rashid Ghani Abdullo, a political analyst (Dushanbe Tajikistan), in an article written exclusively for cabar.asia.
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The definition of “soft power” as the ability of a government or a nation to achieve the desired aim based on the voluntary participation of the allies, not by coercion or handouts, formulated by Joseph Nye, the creator of the corresponding theory, looks so unambiguous only at first glance.
The ability of a country to encourage other countries (societies, elites, etc.) to do what this country wants, not by force or pressure, requires considerable effort. Power, whether it is “soft” or “hard”, is always power.
The reality of our time is that the desire to project the “soft” power is the most vivid characteristic of the United States, continuously strengthening their monopoly as a superpower during two decades of existence of the unipolar world. US allies that, in fact, lost their political independence, had no choice but to follow in the footsteps of the only superpower in the world.
But now such desire of USA and its allies is faced with growing opposition, first of all, on the part of Russia and China. Both these countries understood that they could also project their “soft” power beyond their borders. Furthermore, they do not exclude the possibility of using not quite “soft” forms of resistance at precisely the extent to which Russia restores and increases its political and military subjectivity on the world stage, and China disputes the status of the first economy in the world with the United States and transforms its economic power into a comparable political force.
When a large power projects its “soft power” to other countries, when it “motivates them to do what it wants, not by force”, there are invariably some elements of hard power and handouts, seduction and propaganda, but in a veiled form. All this is particularly evident in cases where the “soft power” is projected with increased intensity, in highly concentrated doses, and is aimed at the achievement by this country and its allies of the desired political result as soon as possible.
A classic example of how such a projection could end for the target country is the events in Ukraine during the past two years. They began as a mass rally in support of associative membership in the European Union and were seen as an expression of a voluntary action to join Europe. The peaceful rally was actively supported by the West, whose representatives, one after another, visited Maidan in Kiev. The projection of “soft power” by the West has, in fact, led to an armed coup, which brought anti-Russian forces to power. The new government was immediately recognized by the West. The balance of interests of the West and Russia in Ukraine that had been previously preserved now was dramatically disturbed in favor of the former. This was followed by inevitable things – transformation of Ukraine into a field of open confrontation between the great powers, the loss of its territorial integrity, the civil war, external management of the country, the economic crisis and so on. In other words, “soft power” can be as destructive as “hard” power.
“Soft power” strategies of the superpowers in Tajikistan
Today Tajikistan is an object for projection of “soft power” by the strongest powers today, which have the largest capacity to do so – Russia, China and the US, as well as the aggregate of the Islamic world. At the same time, since the moment when Tajikistan gained independence after the collapse of the USSR, the process was accompanied by rivalry between its participants. However, unlike in Ukraine, here it happens in a milder form.
The sluggish nature of the competition, especially political, between major powers in Tajikistan is predetermined mainly by the dominance of Russia in this process, not seriously challenged by anyone. It is also explained by the Tajik leadership’s commitment not to disturb the existing balance of interests of Russia, China and the United States in Tajikistan, especially in favor of the US and Western countries, since any excessive roll in this direction will immediately generate a corresponding reaction of Russia and China with all the ensuing consequences.
“Soft power” of Russia – the history
Many factors determine the dominance of Russia in the process of projecting its “soft” power to Tajikistan.
One of them, a fundamental one, lies in the plane of history. In the 1860s, Tsarist Russia started the consistent implementation of the policy of conquest of Central Asia. Its military campaigns resulted in the inclusion of territories of the region, directly, in the Russian Empire, or as a protectorate, into its sphere of military-political, economic and then educational, cultural and informational influence.
So, before the establishment of Soviet power, the entire northern region of present-day Tajikistan and the territory of modern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, except Darwaz, was part of the Russian Empire, of respectively Samarqand and Ferghana governor-generalships of Turkestan region. Its southern regions were a part of the Bukhara Khanate or the Emirate, formally independent, but in fact a Russian protectorate.
In the Soviet period, Russian influence in the region gained a deeper and more diverse nature.
Over more than 120 years of staying in the same space, there have developed numerous diverse and stable relations, and many common things have been formed in the mentality of peoples between the territories of modern Central Asia and Russia.
These relations are so numerous that even after 24 years since the collapse of the USSR, Russia is still not perceived as a stranger or an alien country for independent states of Central Asia, including Tajikistan. And there is no such thing as a conscious mass rejection of everything connected with it, and, above all, the Russian language. The number of Russian-speaking and the level of its knowledge in modern Tajikistan are inferior to what was in Soviet times, but this is an objective result of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia’s current policy of “soft power”
1. Migrant workers
A powerful part of Russia’s “soft” power and its projection for Tajikistan is such a stable phenomenon as mass labor migration from the country to Russia. According to various sources, currently, there is slightly more or less than 1 million people in labor migration in Russia. These figures are confirmed by the data of the FMS of Russia, according to which as of, for example, September 4, 2014, there were 1 million 170 thousand 403 people on its territory. Migrant workers constitute the majority of this mass of people. According to experts, in 2013, remittances to their homeland via bank and non-bank channels were approximately $5 billion, or more than half of GDP of the republic.
Khodzhimukhammad Umarov, a well-known Tajik economist, once told me that the annual economic effect of the turnover of migrant money in the country could make not less than 25% of GDP.
If the current economic turmoil somehow affected the number of labor migrants in Russia, the change is unlikely significant. FMS data confirm this: 1 million 723 citizens of Tajikistan (841,483 men and 159,240 women) are working in this country as of 2 July 2015. Besides Russia, there is virtually no other destination for migration, and the internal circumstances in the country that encourage them to migrate to Russia have not radically changed for the better.
Living during a long time in Russia, migrant workers are somehow under the influence of Russian realities – political, economic, social, informational, educational, cultural, including the business culture, the authorities’ attitude to religion, including Islam, to the operation of mosques, Islamic schools, worship, Muslims and followers of other traditional religions, etc. Deliberately or not, there is a constant comparison in their minds between Russian realities and realities at home, and gradually, they develop attitudes generally favorable to the former.
Positive attitude of labor migrants to Russia is forwarded to their motherland. Given the massive scale of the migration and the fact that migrant workers in their overwhelming majority come from the most numerous strata of the population of the republic, which are characterized by the presence of large families and developed kinships, the positive perception of Russia is accepted by the overwhelming majority of the population.
It has been observed that young migrant workers who lived and worked in Russia are experiencing discomfort and difficulties of readaptation to local realities on returning home. Frequently such a condition is due to the fact that they feel less freely at home than in Russia. In all senses. At the first opportunity, they go back to Russia, to the country of more freedom and opportunities.
2. Russian-language mass media
The media – television, Internet portals and, to a lesser extent, the printing press – play an extremely important role in projecting a “soft” power of Russia to Tajikistan. In their media preferences, the population of the republic is very much Russia-oriented, first of all, thanks to the knowledge of the audience of the republic of the Russian language and the perception of Russian media as something “ours”. The result is the perception of world events through the eyes of the Russian media. The attitude of the absolute majority of the population of the republic to the Western media can be reduced to a very short formula – active rejection. This attitude is preserved for the Russian liberal mass media as pro-Western in spirit, values and attitudes.
3. Russian universities and schools
An essential role in projecting the Russian “soft” power in the republic is played by purely Russian or joint Tajik-Russian educational institutions, such as the high school at the Russian military base of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the Russian-language school at the Russian-Tajik Slavic University (RTSU), RTSU itself, as well as branches of Moscow State University and other Russian universities in Tajikistan. The educational process there is based on the relevant Russian curricula. The desire of Tajik citizens, and not only ethnic Russians, to have their children enrolled in these schools is explained by their conviction that they will receive a better education in these educational institutions.
To a lesser extent the above can be attributed to higher educational institutions in Russia. Firstly, the number of Tajik students studying in Russia is not large. Secondly, the derogatory dismissive attitude of the Russian segment of Russian society to the Tajik labor migrants has become universal. It fully applies not only to migrant workers but also for all Tajiks, whoever they may be, including students. Tajik students react much more painfully to this attitude toward themselves, so the negative associations related to Russia are a lot more developed among students than simple workers.
4. The presence of a Russian military base
We should also write about such a factor of the projection of “soft power”, as the operation of a Military Base 201-1 of the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation in Tajikistan. It was transformed into a present-day base from the 201 Gatchina Motorized Rifle Division, which stationed in the country before the collapse of the USSR. The reality is that the local community does not perceive it as an alien or a foreign military structure. Throughout the 1990s and even some time in the 2000s, citizens of Tajikistan also served there. Although since then the situation in this regard has changed, the base continues to be well integrated into the surrounding local reality. According to press reports, now there is a process of supplying the latest weaponry to the base and transferring the old weapon to Tajik colleagues and assisting them in its mastering. For the military of both countries, especially those who are under forty and older, a joint Soviet past in many ways remains a very “real” reality.
5. Russian Tajiks
In Tajikistan, there is a fairly large number of ethnic Russian. But the argument that they are agents of the “soft” power of modern Russia is debatable. They remain largely Soviet Russians than the Russians of modern Russia. Due to the spatial remoteness of their historical homeland, involvement in the processes very different in nature and content, developing today in Tajikistan and Russia, differing behavioral and mental stereotypes, a direct and unambiguous answer to this question is simply impossible to give.
6. The “Russian world” foundation
As for the impact of such structures as centers and offices of the Foundation “Russian world” created in Tajikistan, it is difficult to evaluate their influence. But one thing is clear: the influence of centers and units of this Foundation is incomparable with the role and importance of those factors, events and organizational structures that have been mentioned above. The same can be said about various kinds of NGOs.
Who in Tajikistan is not affected by the “soft power” of Russia?
However, much more difficult is the case with the attitude to Russia and the influence of its “soft” power among the middle class. This category of the population in Tajikistan is extremely heterogeneous, respectively, its foreign policy preferences and orientation are also heterogeneous. Preferences of the most active segment of the middle class – entrepreneurs – are defined by their business orientation. Some do business with Russia, some with China, and the others with Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states; someone has business with commercial and non-profit organizations of the US and other Western countries.
In quantitative terms, entrepreneurs, representatives of the political and military elites, engaged in the field of exact sciences, etc., in one degree or another are associated with Russian trend. They, as well as technocratic oriented part of the middle class of the republic, are more tolerant to the phenomenon of “soft” power of Russia. The humanitarian oriented segment, however, particularly independent Tajik media, has a different attitude. A substantial portion of this segment sees Russia’s projecting its “soft” power to Tajikistan as a challenge to the independence and sovereignty of the country.
Indicative in this respect is the attitude of both parts to the question of entering of Tajikistan into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The former, including almost all the economists of the republic, are actively advocating the entry into the Union. The latter, pointing to the inevitability of the loss of some part, and, perhaps, a very substantial one, of the republic’s sovereignty in favor of supranational bodies of the EECU, which sooner or later will be created, are calling for, at least, refraining from hasty steps in this direction.
Risks and threats
In summary, it can be stated that the influence of “soft” power of Russia to Tajikistan is quite noticeable. The main result of this effect is the formation of a positive image of Russia in the eyes of the vast majority of the population of Tajikistan and the perception by the majority of Tajik population of Russia as an absolute strategic partner. Russia owes its positive image in Tajikistan to, first of all, migrant workers, anti-Western and pro-integration orientation of the current Russian government and to the official Russian media reflecting its political interests.
Soft Power of the Russian Federation and its projection on Tajikistan is not yet a serious threat. However, this may occur if, for example, suddenly Russia decides to motivate Tajikistan for an early entry into the EEU, or Tajikistan decides to develop such relations with the West, which would lead to excessive roll in his direction, and the existing balance of interests of Russia, China and the West is disturbed in favor of the latter. Or is some strange steps will be taken that could provoke a crisis in Tajik-Russian relations, like, for example, the “the airplane” crisis that erupted in September 2011.
In those days of September, a Russian aircraft, en route from Afghanistan through Tajikistan to Russia, was arrested at the airport in Kurgan-Tube for some inexplicable reasons. The pilots were tried. Russia took responsive steps. In the end, the convicted pilots were pardoned and released. Real victims in that situation were Tajik labor migrants in Russia and the Tajik-Russian relations as a whole. The incident added a negative tone to the image of Tajikistan in Russia and vice versa. Some people in Tajik society collapsed with condemnation on the Russian side. At the same time, Tajik labor migrants expressed complaints to the Tajik government.
In order to avoid the former of the above risks, the country must convince its strategic partner that now there is no practical necessity for Russia in a speedy accession of Tajikistan to the EEU. Economically, Tajikistan has very little significance for Russia. The entry of the republic in the Union for Russia is significant only from the political and military points of view. However, both issues are successfully solved by the fact that military-political relations are already developing via participation of Tajikistan in the CSTO, CIS and SCO.
As a counter-proposal Tajikistan could put forward the idea of associative membership of the Republic in the EEU. The proposal satisfies the desire of Russia to see Tajikistan involved in this union, as well as the desire of Tajikistan to keep its sovereignty and not delegate it to anyone. The experience of the successful operation of such a model is available. The associate membership of the Maghreb countries (Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria) in the European Union satisfies both the countries themselves and their former mother country – France.
With regard to the latter of the above risks, Tajikistan should bear in mind, first, that excessive bias towards the West will cause an immediate negative reaction of Russia and China. Secondly, if on this occasion Tajikistan has any trouble with Russia, which will necessarily be the case, or with China, which is also possible, the West will not openly fight against Russia or China because of Tajikistan, as shown by the experience of Georgia in 2008 and the current experience in Ukraine.
Rashid Ghani Abdullo, a political expert
The views of the author do not necessarily represent those of CABAR