One of the least known nations on the planet, Tajikistan demands little attention from the outside world – even less than its Central Asian neighbors do. And since the conclusion of its civil war at the end of 1997, it has had little reason to do so.
Despite a small population – just shy of 8 million – and a flagging economy, the poorest nation in Central Asia is geopolitically unique. The major powers, however, have largely ignored it in their strategic thinking. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from neighboring Afghanistan (as well as their large contingencies of support units in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), China’s geostrategic interests focused largely elsewhere, and Russia’s priorities now pointed towards the Caucasus and Ukraine, Tajikistan finds itself increasingly isolated, with no lifeline, in a seemingly perpetually troubled region.
But a closer analysis of all three major powers in the region – Russia, the U.S., and China – finds a shared interest in the long-term economic and social cohesion of Tajikistan. Some economic reports paint an optimistic picture: The country has seen continual growth since the end of the Civil War and a general increase in living standards and foreign investment. But this nominal stability is more illusory than it is sustainable, and a continued ambivalence by the three dominant players in Central Asia towards Dushanbe will undermine these more positive statistics. With such economic hardship comes other challenges.
For a long time now, it has been feared the mountainous regions of southern and south-eastern Tajikistan could provide safe-haven for Taliban insurgents. This fear has become increasingly apparent in 2015, as evidenced by Tajikistan’s mobilization of more troops to its southern border. The lack of human and financial capital in Tajikistan means, however, that Dushanbe is effectively powerless to slow the influx of not only foreign fighters, but also Afghan opiates bound for Russia. Limited U.S. assistance has provided minor help in securing the Afghan frontier, but endemic poverty in these regions provides a financial incentive for local populations to turn a blind eye to the economically lucrative narcotics supply.
Russia is the final destination for this supply chain. Narcotics abuse in Russia is well documented, particularly in its southern border region with Kazakhstan, but also west of the Urals. So long as Tajikistan provides an open door to the Afghan opiates, dangerous drug abuse in Russia remains entrenched.
Similarly, the U.S. and the West have no strategic interest in a weak Tajikistan. For 15 years, blood and treasure have been sacrificed ensuring a more stable, Western-aligned Afghanistan. But with the withdrawal of U.S. and Western forces, Kabul will struggle to combat a resurgent Taliban and its affiliates, for whom the mountainous regions of northern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan provide security. Without a dominant U.S. presence in the region, and with a fragile economy, Dushanbe will simply be unable to counter an influx of destabilizing insurgent groups across the border. While the endemic poverty, lack of education, and discontent with the local political process remains, southern Tajikistan harbors all the traits of a region awaiting problematic conversion to extremist ideological positions.
As much as increasing destabilization in Tajikistan is not in the West’s interests, nor is it in China’s. One of China’s 14 contiguous neighbors, Tajikistan is nonetheless low on the geopolitical agenda for Beijing. However, the Chinese-Tajik frontier is yet to be formalized, and an increasingly destabilized Tajikistan provides further headaches for China as it struggles with domestic instability in its own western regions.
Here we can see all three nations at the forefront of global politics with a shared interest in the economic, political and social stabilization of Tajikistan. Currently, however, no consensus between the U.S., China and Russia has emerged in relation to multilateral development plans aimed at stabilizing the small Central Asian state, and nor is one imminent.
Curiously, certain elements of Tajikistan’s geography and demographics should result in a more optimistic long-term economic outlook. While the West struggles with the challenges of an ageing population and the structural economic challenges associated with it, 70 percent of Tajikistan’s population is under the age of 30. There are enormous areas of development, particularly in housing, agriculture, and energy-infrastructure that, with foreign investment, could kick-start the flagging Tajik economy (and solve the housing affordability crisis in Dushanbe). China’s engagement with Central Asia more broadly, as it looks to shore up its long-term energy supply, currently offers little benefit for Tajikistan directly, but there is potential for future trade routes through the country and the sale of Tajik hydroelectricity as China’s growth continues.
The Tajik government itself should exploit its unique circumstances and leverage all three powers for the maximum support possible. Few developing nations find themselves in a position to exploit the interests of three permanent UN Security Council members. Like many developing countries, however, poor governance proves to be insurmountable. Both in terms of foreign policy and domestic affairs, the Tajik government has often implemented counterproductive policies that hinder its long-term future. Extreme measures, for example, in the area of religious freedom – a recent ban on burqas in public institutions has simply resulted in Islamic girls not attending school – demonstrates short term, reactive policymaking by Dushanbe.
The Tajik political system is still one dominated by strongmen and plagued by corruption, meaning what little foreign investment finds its way to Dushanbe often provides few benefits to the general population and broader development goals.
But all of these problems are solvable through conducive, multilateral development programs that are in the interests of all regional and global powers. The future of Tajikistan should be brighter than we see today, with so much at stake for the world’s most powerful states. So long as the U.S. perceives its rebalance as its primary consideration, China focuses on securing its interests elsewhere, and Russia directs its resources to Ukraine and the Caucuses, the success of Tajikistan’s short-term future looks tentative. That is to everyone’s detriment.
Edward Cavanough is a post-graduate International Relations / Political Science student at The University of Sydney, Australia. His research focuses on Central Asian geopolitics & the Balkans, and the domestic politics of Australia and the United States. @actoncavanough