BACKGROUND: The disintegration of the Soviet Union culminated in the formal proclamation of independence of all Soviet republics. However, for Tajikistan, independence brought about insignificant changes regarding its political and economic dependency upon Russia. Economically, Tajikistan’s population survives largely through remittances sent by labor migrants in Russia. According to Tajikistan’s Ministry of Labor, Russia is the final destination for about 90 percent of Tajik labor migrants. According to Russia’s trade mission in Tajikistan, Russia remains the main exporter of oil, gas, and heavy machinery to Tajikistan, while Russia is a major consumer of Tajik cotton and aluminum. The overall trade turnover between the two countries reached US$ 1.2 billion in 2013. Russia’s economic interests are heavily represented in Tajikistan’s energy sector through the ownership of 75 percent of the Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant, one of the largest in Tajikistan.
Political dependency is manifested in Tajikistan’s participation in Russia-led agreements, acts, and unions. The largest are the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Community, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russia deploys a military base in Tajikistan since 1993 as part of the agreement on Collective Peacekeeping Forces. After a series of bargaining debates, the Tajik government signed a deal in 2012 that extended the presence of the base until 2042. Among the Russian military installations in Tajikistan is the space monitoring station Window, which protects the central part of Russia and Siberia and is critical for Russia’s defense system. Notably, one of the reasons for Russia’s invasion of Crimea was the protection of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol.
Additional conditions that connect Tajikistan with Russia include, firstly, that Tajikistan is a subject of the Russian-Tajik dual citizenship agreement signed in 1995. As known, the populations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were issued Russian passports in large numbers prior to, during, and after the Russia-Georgia military conflict of 2008, providing Russia with a reason to protect its citizens abroad.
Secondly, the strong push by President Rakhmon, starting in 2007, to change names in favor of Tajik stylistics over Russian is not unequivocally supported by the general Tajik population, mainly due to the high labor migration to Russia. Russian-sounding names make for easier accommodation in Russia as explained by Tajikistan’s Ministry of Justice. Thirdly, the status of Russian as the language of international communication is officially secured in Tajikistan’s Constitution. During a meeting with Rakhmon last week, the Chairman of Russia’s Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, agreed to meet his request for 400 Russian language teachers as the demand for Russian in Tajikistan is increasing. Overall, regardless of occasional drawbacks in political relations between Russia and Tajikistan, Tajiks have developed positive perceptions of Russia founded primarily on their multi-level dependency upon it.
IMPLICATIONS: Coverage of the Crimea events in Tajikistan has a very limited character due to the strict control of the media and a scrupulous filtering of information. Until now, no Tajik officials, including the president, have made any statements regarding Ukraine and the Crimea crisis. The silence on these important geopolitical developments can mainly be interpreted as an expression of uncertainty over Tajikistan’s own future. For the authoritarian Tajik government, taking a clear stance on the situation in Crimea would not produce a favorable outcome.
Tajikistan’s government is restrained from protesting Russia’s actions in Crimea out of fear of losing an important partner. The government cannot support the pro-democracy upheaval in Ukraine because it opposed government repression of political dissent. However, taking a stance in defense of Russia’s actions would worsen relations with the West and endanger financial assistance. Also, such support would be a de facto admission of Russia’s right to increase its influence in the post-Soviet region, which can have far-reaching effects. For the Tajik regime, it could ultimately imply a loss of power and possibly the end of Tajikistan’s independent statehood.
The prospect of a “Crimea scenario” in Tajikistan must be considered from two standpoints, including the interests of outside players and the presence of internal forces capable of initiating such a scenario. The post-Soviet experience demonstrates that Tajikistan has the potential for disintegration; it contains two regions which have previously expressed separatist intentions, although unsuccessfully so. These are the Badakhshan autonomous region in the south, located in Pamir Mountains, and the Sughd region in the north, located in the ethnically mixed Fergana valley.
Badakhshan remains the most restless region in Tajikistan with the last anti-governmental actions taking place in 2012. Pamiris take pride in their distinct culture, language, and religion following the Ismaili Shiite branch of Islam, whereas other Tajiks are predominantly Sunnis. Politically, Badakhshan is very distant from Dushanbe and Moscow and presents a constant challenge to central government control. However, there is no viable player powerful enough to painlessly absorb Badakhshan, nor is there any open support for its separatist movement. China claimed and received about one percent of Tajikistan’s land in Pamir in 2011-2013. However, radicalized Pamiris are not welcomed by Beijing, which is struggling with its own Uighur population whose region is adjacent to Pamir. The hypothetical combination of these two would be very troublesome for China. It is also questionable whether Pamiris would be interested in an association with China or any other country.
Rakhmon brutally suppressed the last anti-governmental uprising in Sughd in 1998. The armed confrontation was fueled by calls for secession by Makhmud Khudoberdyev, the leader of the armed opposition forces. Khudoberdyev relied on the support of a large population of Uzbeks living in Sughd and the possible involvement of other Uzbeks in the Fergana valley. Calls were made for support from Uzbekistan but were not heard. The lack of support from within and outside prevented Sughd’s separation.
However, in terms of geographical, political, and economic conditions, the Sughd region is more susceptible to separation than any other Tajik region. Sughd is located in the Fergana valley where ethnic Tajiks frequently intermix with Uzbeks and differ from other Tajiks in culture and dialect. Located in the north, Sughd is attached to the rest of Tajikistan only through a narrow mountain route inaccessible during most of the year. It can be blocked relatively easy, isolating the region from the rest of the country. Yet, possessing over 70 percent of all Tajik production enterprises, Sughd is the main industrial region in Tajikistan. Finally, located closer to the center of transport connections with other Central Asian republics, Sughd is in a superior geopolitical and economic position compared to the rest of Tajikistan.
Still, Sughd and Badakhshan lack the distinct and coordinated separatist movements, ideology, and resources which were present in Crimea. Tajikistan has also undergone an intensive out-migration of ethnic Russians. As of 2010, only 0.5 percent of Tajikistan’s population consisted of ethnic Russians – a drop from 7.6 percent in 1989, according to Tajikistan’s State Statistics agency. This is a very low number compared to the 58 percent ethnic Russians composing Crimea’s population and insufficient for wide-spread pro-Russian demonstrations as the ones seen in Crimea.
CONCLUSIONS: Tajikistan’s crumbling economy, a low sense of national pride among Tajiks, insignificant support from developed countries, and a distance from the world’s leading democracies could eventually contribute to the repetition of a “Crimea scenario” in Tajikistan. Without doubt, Russia has created a potentially dangerous precedent which can be applied in a number of post-Soviet republics. Those experiencing stagnation in their political and economic development, like Tajikistan, are more vulnerable to violations of their sovereignty and potentially loss of territory.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Oleg Salimov holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies (Public Administration, Political Science, Education, and Sociology) from the University of Montana.