Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, has had a busy schedule over the past few months, since he took it upon himself to be an advocate for the non-recognition of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. During the first half of October, Rahmon made a working visit to Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the headquarters of most of the European Union institutions, following a late August invitation from the European Council’s president, Charles Michel.
Following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, ahead of the final withdrawal of Western troops, Central Asia has once again risen to the attention of Western diplomats due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan and its possible contribution either to evacuation efforts of Afghan partners, or to hosting refugees. Some analysts argued that Kazakhstan is the most obvious partner of the European Union to protect its interests in Afghanistan, by offering a base for international organizations doing humanitarian work in the country. Since Afghanistan and Kazakhstan do not share a common border, it may offer a higher degree of maneuver to the Kazakhstani leadership. Others have called on the United States to rethink its policy toward Central Asia as a means to effectively counteract the rise of China and distance itself from the traditional view of Central Asia as simply a gateway to Afghanistan.
Tajikistan stood out among the other Central Asian countries by not engaging with the Taliban. During a meeting with the Pakistani foreign minister on August 25, Rahmon specifically said that Tajikistan would not recognize an exclusively Taliban government. In the following days, France’s President Emmanuel Macron called Rahmon and invited him to pay a visit to Paris; meanwhile, the European Council’s Michel invited him to visit Brussels. Both European leaders expressed concerns about the security at the Afghan-Tajik border.
Relations between Tajikistan and the European Union are governed by a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2004 and in force since 2010, which sets up the political, economic and socio-cultural framework of bilateral cooperation. Rahmon previously conducted four visits, either to Brussels or to Strasbourg, and was interested in advancing cooperation with the European Union and NATO, in order to continue to receive financial assistance and aid. There was much focus on the situation in neighboring Afghanistan and the Tajik support for the multinational military mission in Afghanistan.
Rahmon’s recent visit to the European Union headquarters consisted of meetings with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borell, the European Council president, Michel, as well as EU Special Representative for Central Asia Terhi Hakkala. Afghanistan featured most prominently on the agendas of these meetings, with both sides being affected by the deteriorating security situation. The issue of strengthening the Afghan-Tajik border through defense assistance was highlighted, beyond the support offered through the already traditional programs of BOMCA (Border Management in Central Asia) and CADAP (Central Asia Drug Action Program) in order to prevent drug trafficking and other transnational organized crimes. In a post-meeting tweet, Michel stressed that both sides support an inclusive government in Kabul and had discussed “the spill-over of the situation in Afghanistan.”
Back in August, the EU justice and home ministers pledged to support countries bordering Afghanistan to host Afghan refugees in order to prevent a new wave of migrants in Europe. In 2016, the EU struck a deal with Turkey to provide financial assistance in exchange for limiting the flow Syrian refugees. Since then, the European Commission has proposed a new approach to migration and asylum, which stresses the need for international partnerships aimed at supporting other countries, mainly transit ones, to host refugees. Afghan refugees are a security concern for the European Union, according to Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, who mentioned, however, that the flow of refugees is not so high. A High-Level Forum on providing protection to Afghans at risk was convened on October 7, with the aim of discussing concrete measures, among them the support for Afghanistan’s neighboring countries.
The recent visit of Rahmon to Brussels is significant in this respect. Since the Taliban takeover, according to Eurasianet’s sources, the number of Afghan refugees entering Tajikistan has risen from 7,000 in the spring to over 15,000 in October, although in September there was an announcement about the lack of accommodation infrastructure. Tajik authorities cited financial constraints as preventing Tajikistan from hosting refugees.
The talks in Brussels and the ones in Paris may offer Rahmon a way out of this, through a deal similar to that between the EU and Turkey, which, although insufficient to cover all the needs of the refugee community, may provide Dushanbe with needed money. Nevertheless, Tajikistan is considered merely a transit country, with most refugees hoping to reach Canada or the United States, mainly due to the lack of any economic opportunities in Tajikistan. Central Asian countries have expressed concerns regarding the flow of refugees, with the CSTO members agreeing in September on a non-admission policy, while Kyrgyzstan proposed in the SCO summit last month to create a security belt to control migration.
Another point on the agenda of the EU meetings was the impact of climate change and possible areas of cooperation. Through the Green Deal, the EU set its goal to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050, which translates into a series of goals intended to transform the entire economic development model based on sustainable and green principles. Because of this, the EU now places the means to mitigate the effects of climate change at the heart of all its actions, including diplomacy,.
In turn, Tajikistan expressed its concern regarding climate change through various diplomatic and political initiatives in the framework of the U.N. Decade for Action on “Water for Sustainable Development” 2018-2028 or its lobbying for declaring 2021 the International Year for the Preservation of Glaciers. These commitments were much appreciated by European officials and highlighted during the recent contacts in Brussels by referencing especially the water management problems in Tajikistan.
This kind of public posturing from Tajikistan on topics, such as climate change and water management, that are relevant for a mighty donor like the European Union can lead to further investments and aid for the country, as showed by Michel’s reported comment of “untapped opportunities” in Tajikistan. In the public communications, there was no explicit mentioning of the April Kyrgyz-Tajik border clashes, sparked by accumulated local tensions over poor water management in the area. In Rahmon’s meeting with Borell, the continuation and expansion of CASA-1000 and its potential to contribute a green economy in Central Asia were featured.
The meetings also addressed the broader agenda of EU-Tajikistan cooperation. On November 22, Dushanbe will host the 17th EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting, which will address the status of the inter-regional cooperation in the framework of the 2019 EU Strategy for Central Asia, as well as the European support for mitigating the effects of COVID-19 pandemic. For Tajikistan, a hot topic is the launching of negotiations for an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA), already in force with Kazakhstan since March 1, 2020, agreed with Kyrgyzstan in 2019, and in negotiation with Uzbekistan since 2018.
Rahmon’s European tour, although subject to some calls to address human rights violations, elevated Tajikistan to the status of a like-minded partner for the European Union regarding the situation in Afghanistan. The “open doors” foreign policy adopted in Dushanbe is generally based on the benefits awarded by potential partners. Tajikistan’s interest to become a part of the Generalized Scheme of Preference Plus (GSP+) list of the EU, entailing further trade benefits in exchange for implementation of 27 international conventions on sustainable development and good governance, and the launching of negotiation of the EPCA are the main benefits offered by the EU, especially to a country with limited resources. However, an assistance package for the resettlement of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan and their integration into the community, thus a massive investment in local economy, for preventing security spill over, may offer Brussels a peace of mind much needed in a Europe facing multiple crises.