In mid September, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would help Tajikistan’s embattled President Emomali Rahmon combat political instability. Putin’s declaration was triggered by gun battles in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, which resulted in the deaths of more than 20 people. Russia’s outreach to Rahmon was a vital show of support, as Tajikistan’s military and political institutions are extremely weak. Nevertheless, Putin’s offer demonstrates the extent to which Tajikistan’s multi-vector foreign policy has given way to an increased dependency on Russia.
In recent years, Tajikistan has tried to dispel arguments that it is a satellite of Moscow, by diversifying its economic and defense linkages. The slow progress of EEU accession talks and a 40 percent decline in remittances from Russia in 2014 provided further impetus for Tajikistan’s diversification process. The Central Asian country has received substantial foreign investment from countries like China, South Korea, Qatar and Iran, as it attempts to insulate itself from Russia’s economic malaise. But these investments have not translated into strong alliances. Western nations have paid little attention to the Tajikistan crisis and China is unwilling to intervene militarily in Central Asia.
Therefore, Russia is the guarantor of Tajikistan’s political stability and is poised to further consolidate its economic and military hegemony over the impoverished country. Russia will likely prop up Rahmon, but only if Tajikistan becomes a member of the EEU. Should violence in Tajikistan escalate, Rahmon might have no choice but to turn to Russia for indirect military assistance in defusing the crisis.
Exploiting a Vulnerability
The weakness of Tajikistan’s central government has been a consistent feature of the country’s post-1991 political history. Despite major vulnerabilities, Rahmon has been able to cling to power because the Tajik people fear that any attempt to unseat him would replicate the chaos of the 1992-1997 civil war. In that conflict, between 50,000 to 100,000 Tajiks were killed, 1.2 million Tajiks were displaced, and an economic meltdown left a large portion of the population dependent on foreign assistance.
The recent outbreak of violence in Tajikistan suggests that public apathy may no longer be sufficient to help Rahmon retain power. If this is true, Rahmon will require foreign assistance to prop up his regime. As Tajikistan derived more than half of its economic output from Russian remittances in April 2014, Rahmon is likely to seek support from Russia. Tajikistan’s outreach to Russia will occur even though deeper Russian involvement will undermine its sovereignty.
Alexei Malashenko, a leading expert on Russia-Central Asia relations at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me in a recent interview that Tajikistan’s burgeoning political crisis could push the country deeper into Moscow’s orbit. Malashenko argues that Rahmon has become internationally isolated due to his leadership failures. Russia is the only country willing to provide personal support for Rahmon, but this assistance is likely to be conditional on Tajikistan’s accession to the EEU. According to Malashenko, Tajikistan will almost certainly accept EEU membership, because Rahmon regards ceding control over Tajikistan’s trade policy to Moscow is a more acceptable option than chaos, which would embolden ISIS. In the unlikely event that Tajikistan does not accept EEU membership in the next one or two years, Malashenko believes that Russia will withdraw support for Rahmon’s regime. This move will inspire other countries, like Iran, to turn against Rahmon out of fear that his continued leadership without Russian backing will destabilize Tajikistan and fuel Islamist insurgencies.
Tajikistan’s dearth of strategic options will inevitably soothe deep divisions about EEU membership amongst the country’s elites. Even though Tajikistan has signed the CIS Free Trade Zone Agreement, and the majority of Tajiks polled consistently show support for integration in the Russian-led customs union, EEU skeptics remain vocal. Rahmon has rhetorically emphasized Tajikistan’s political independence from Russia, and has trumpeted the close trade links he has forged with China. Tajik business leaders fear the country will restrict its growth potential by integrating more closely with the customs union’s struggling economies. Kyrgyzstan’s ongoing border dispute with Tajikistan is another sticking point, especially since Kyrgyzstan’s open borders policy could exacerbate instability in both countries. These concerns are still legitimate, but the gravity of the current crisis could cause even these dissenters to grudgingly accept EEU membership.
Rising Military Dependency
Russia possesses a considerable and well-established military presence in Tajikistan consisting of 6,000-7,000 troops in the 201st military base, and an airbase in Kyrgyzstan that can easily reach Tajikistan. Russia’s military buildup in Tajikistan has been a gradual process that started with its peacekeeping role in the 1990s civil war and expanded into a modern base presence in 2004. Russia’s military capabilities have returned to the spotlight in light of Putin’s recent speech to the CSTO warning of a potential spillover of instability from Afghanistan to Central Asia.
Despite the rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin, Russia is unlikely to militarily escalate in Tajikistan to resolve the current crisis. Even though ISIS has recruited ethnic Tajiks from Afghanistan and the CSTO is keen to demonstrate its capacity to provide rapid ground assistance in Central Asia, Syria remains the focus of Russia’s counter-terrorism efforts. Tajikistan is on the periphery of Russian strategic interests, and the Russian public pays minimal attention to developments in Tajikistan. Therefore, the deployment of new troops in that country would be very difficult to justify.
Nevertheless, Russia might provide indirect assistance to Rahmon, as he attempts to repair fractures within the Tajik military. General Nazarzoda’s mutiny, which sparked the recent violence in Tajikistan, follows a long trend of defections by military officers from the Rahmon regime. RFE/RL recently reported that in the past two decades, four Tajik generals and two Tajik colonels have been accused of plotting attacks against the government. Opposition military figures were disgruntled with Nazarzoda’s promotion to the Deputy Defense Minister post. In light of these problems, Russia could deploy existing forces from its military base to help Rahmon enforce order in the Tajik military. Russia could also provide some economic assistance to Rahmon, in order to co-opt regime opponents in the military with patronage.
While the scale of Russia’s involvement in Tajikistan will depend on Rahmon’s willingness to comply with Putin’s demands and the gravity of the Islamist threat, Tajikistan will likely pivot towards Russia, as it has no viable alternative options. The weaknesses of Tajikistan’s political institutions could cause the country to undergo an uneasy return to political stability and rocky transition to EEU membership.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford in Russian and East European Studies. He is also a journalist who is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post Politics andWorld Post verticals, and recently to the Kyiv Post.