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Trip Cancellation Fuels Rumors Of Rift In Tajik-Russian Relations

  • Farangis Najibullah

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (left) with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Tehran

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (left) with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Tehran

Domestic problems, including severe electricity shortages, were the official reasons cited for the cancellation of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon's trip to Moscow this week.

But the trip cancellation comes amid growing signs of strain in the traditionally strong Moscow-Dushanbe relationship that emerged after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Uzbekistan last month.

Rashid Ghani, a Tajik expert on political affairs, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the last-minute decision is clearly related to tensions over water resources.

“Obviously, the main issue between Tajikistan and Russia is the Roghun power plant and other energy-related matters," Ghani says. "Since the two sides have not reached any solution over these matters, what would be the point of president’s visit to Moscow? That trip wouldn’t bring any benefit to anyone.”

Siding With Uzbekistan?

Rahmon was originally expected to arrive in Moscow on February 2 and would stay on to attend summits of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec) to be held on February 4.

But that was before Medvedev said during a recent trip to Uzbekistan that Russia would not participate in energy projects in Central Asia unless the concerns of all states in the region were considered.

Obviously, the main issue between Tajikistan and Russia is Roghun power plant and other energy-related matters.
Tajikistan, which is trying to complete its Roghun hydroelectric power station, took the gesture as a sign that Moscow was siding with Uzbekistan in a long-standing feud over water and energy supplies.

Medvedev's comments were followed by Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohkhon Zarif's announcement that Dushanbe would go ahead with its hydropower projects, despite all objections by other countries.

The emerging rift has surprised observers who note that Tajikistan has long been considered Russia’s most loyal partner in Central Asia, and in the past has almost unconditionally supported Moscow's policies.

Left The Door Open

Rahmon, who has came to power with Russia's backing in 1992, has never missed any summits or meetings of the CSTO.

And investment-dependent Tajikistan has long left the door open for business with Russia, and host's Russia's largest military bases in Central Asia amounting to some 7,000 troops.

The timing of the cancellation, coming a week after Rahmon conducted telephone negotiations centered on energy and security with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, have also fueled rumors that Tajikistan is increasingly looking at Tehran as its main partner and supporter.

Adding to the speculation, Tajik government officials speaking to RFE/RL's Tajik Service on the condition of anonymity have said Rahmon will be making an official stop in Tehran in the coming weeks.

Tajik media are reporting that Iran's trade and defense ministers, along with a deputy energy minister, will arrive in Dushanbe on February 3 to discuss economic and security cooperation.

Iran, which shares language and cultural ties with Tajikistan, has strengthened its ties with Dushanbe in recent years.

Tehran has invested in key energy and industrial projects in Tajikistan and is the main shareholder of Sangtuda-2, one of Tajikistan's major hydropower plants.

Iran has also invested some $30 million in road and tunnel projects linking Tajikistan's southern and northern provinces.

In a sign of increasing cultural ties, major Tajik universities in Dushanbe often feature "Iran rooms" funded by Iran, where students are provided access to Iranian books, media outlets, and websites. Tajik teachers, doctors, and other specialists are now regularly taking part in training trips to Iran, at Tehran's expense.

Reneged On Funding

Russia, meanwhile, has in recent years withdrawn from a number of multimillion dollar joint projects in Tajikistan. Most telling to the current dispute was a trip Medvedev made to Tajikistan in 2008 in which he reneged on promised funding for the contentious Roghun hydropower station.

But despite the signs of apparently souring relationships between Dushanbe and Moscow, and the potential for more cooperation with Iran, many Tajik experts say Tajikistan will be careful not to damage ties with Russia.

Unemployment remains a major problem in Tajikistan, and some 1 million Tajiks -- nearly one-sixth of the country's population -- depend on seasonal jobs in Russia. Experts say that a severe social crisis in Tajikistan could result from migrant laborers losing their jobs in Russia.

Dushanbe-based expert Shokirjon Hakimov notes that Tehran, too, will be careful about harming its own relations with Moscow.

"In any potential conflict between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan over such a strategic matter, Iran would stay in a neutral position or it would take Russia's side," Hakimov says.

This is in part because "Iran, which faces international pressure over its disputed nuclear program, needs Russia's backing in the UN Security Council," Hakimov adds.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

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