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Qishloq Ovozi

Central Asia leaders have traditionally looked to Russia, but China has emerged as the economic driver of the region.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has welcomed the foreign ministers from the five Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- to Washington. Their meeting, dubbed the C5+1, follows up on the inaugural session of the group, which was held last year in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

With its involvement in Afghanistan winding down, the United States is attempting to restructure the relationship it has had with Central Asia for the last 15 years -- where for Washington, security had been the priority.

Washington is hoping to open new trade ties with Central Asia, a difficult task at a time when Central Asia's neighbor China has come to dominate the region economically during the last decade.

The United States is also seeking to reemphasize the need for the Central Asian governments to show greater respect for basic human rights and take more credible and visible steps toward establishing and developing democratic institutions. Washington was active in prodding Central Asian governments towards democratic reforms in the 1990s, but after the September 11, 2001, attacks its focus shifted to counterterrorism efforts in neighboring Afghanistan.

Some critics have said that the U.S. change in policy was unpopular with the governments and many people in Central Asia and changed the region's view of the United States.

While Kerry is likely to encourage the five foreign ministers to move toward greater regional integration and cooperation, the reality on the ground in Central Asia is the opposite. The five countries have been drifting further apart since they became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.

That might mean Washington will choose to focus on its relationships with the individual countries.

Talking Democracy

For Western governments, including the United States, Kyrgyzstan still remains the great hope for democracy taking root in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is holding a presidential election next year and the incumbent, Almazbek Atambaev, has repeatedly said he will abide by the constitutional one-term limit and step down. Peaceful transitions of power and strict observance of constitutional term limits are something Washington would like all the Central Asian governments to embrace, so U.S. officials will likely hold lengthy discussions with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev.

On the agenda might also be the case of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek rights activist and journalist jailed in the wake of interethnic riots in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. The United States has criticized the jailing and the U.S. State Department gave Askarov its Human Rights Award in July 2015. That recognition immediately soured ties between the two countries, with Kyrgyzstan renouncing a 1993 cooperation agreement with the United States.

Separate meetings with Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov will likely focus on economic ties. The largest U.S. investment in Central Asia is Chevron's participation in Kazakhstan's massive Tengiz oil field. The TengizChevroil project in western Kazakhstan has provided a basis for U.S.-Kazakh ties for more than two decades.

However, Kazakhstan has regressed in recent years in its attempts to implement democratic reforms. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has amended legislation to allow himself to remain president until he dies. Snap parliamentary elections earlier this year excluded any genuine opposition parties and reestablished a subservient parliament bound to do the bidding of the president. Nazarbaev just turned 76 at the start of July and has no apparent successor. Kazakhstan doesn't have a system designed to produce a second president genuinely chosen by the masses.

Individual meetings with the foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are likely to cover the same ground. All three states have entrenched presidents, repressive political systems, and all three are vulnerable to security threats emanating from their neighbor to the south, Afghanistan.

Afghan Insecurity

With Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, security will likely remain the focus, with their foreign ministers undoubtedly seeking guarantees that the United States will not withdraw from Afghanistan -- and leave the problem of Afghanistan's worsening security situation on their doorsteps.

For a while, Washington has been engaged in ongoing consultations with all three countries about the situation in Afghanistan and has provided military aid and infrastructure support, particularly to Uzbekistan, which in early 2015 received more than 300 mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles to help guard its frontier with Afghanistan.

Most likely, Washington will be seeking some indications that the three governments are open to moving forward on long-stalled political reforms. That might be a futile hope at this point, as all three countries are led by presidents who show no sign of ever leaving office and are resistant to altering their political systems to allow the inclusion of opposition voices.

Washington officials will likely discuss with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov the Uzbek-U.S. car-making joint venture GM Uzbekistan, which has been mired in scandal after it emerged that the Uzbek management at the plant had allegedly embezzled millions of dollars. Those officials are in custody and facing trial in Uzbekistan but the incident will damper any enthusiasm from other U.S. companies to invest in Uzbekistan.

There is also the question of what to do with the approximately $800 million of Uzbek assets frozen by U.S. authorities, which Tashkent is attempting to get back. The frozen millions are connected to Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Karimova is under house arrest in Uzbekistan after a series of bribery and money-laundering scandals became public in several European countries.

With Russia still the major guarantor of security in Central Asia and China the dominant economic power, the United States is attempting to craft a role that includes security and trade, but crucially offers something those two great powers can't.

How close to Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) does Tajik President Emomali Rahmon want to get?

On July 19, Abdufattoh Ghoib, the head of Tajikistan's Customs Service, announced that the Tajik government was considering making an application to enter the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Ghoib's declaration followed an announcement from Leonid Slutsky, the Russian State Duma member overseeing Eurasian integration, in which he stated that Tajikistan would likely apply for EEU membership in 2017.

If Tajikistan joins the EEU, Tajikistan will be entrenched further into the Russian sphere of influence. From a purely economic standpoint, Tajikistan's dependence on remittance revenues from guest workers living in Russia makes EEU integration a natural step. Yet deeper integration with Russia has been surprisingly controversial in Tajikistan.

Even though Tajikistan is economically beholden to Moscow, a sizable minority of Tajiks are opposed to EEU accession. In addition, some Tajik military officers are angered by Russia's lack of consultation with Tajik officials on important military-base activities and crimes perpetrated by Russian soldiers at Moscow's Tajik base.

Why Many Tajiks Oppose Economic Integration With Russia

Although Russia and Tajikistan have been allies since Tajikistan's creation as an independent state in 1991, many Tajiks fear that deeper economic integration with Russia will stymie Tajikistan's long-term economic development for two reasons.

First, some Tajik business elites fear that EEU accession will damage Dushanbe's economic and diplomatic relationships with non-EEU actors. In particular, China and other important secondary trade partners, like Qatar and Iran, could view Tajikistan as a Russian client state if it joins the EEU. This perception could cause vital foreign investors to scale back their capital provisions to the Tajik economy.

Zafar Abdullayev, director of the Content think tank, argued in a July 2015 Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) briefing that heightened Kremlin control over Tajikistan's economy and political system could also severely strain Washington-Dushanbe relations. Deeper U.S. involvement in Tajikistan's internal politics would likely result in Russia reciprocally tightening its grip over Tajikistan. This scenario could compromise Tajikistan's sovereignty and inextricably link Tajikistan's economic future to the trajectory of the Russian economy.

Second, economic crises in the EEU's two largest countries, Russia and Kazakhstan, have reduced public support for Eurasian integration. Tajikistan's diminished enthusiasm for the EEU can be demonstrated by a decline in Tajik labor migration to Russia. According to a July 21 statement by Tajikistan's minister of labor, migration, and employment, Sumangul Tagoyzoda, the number of migrant workers leaving Tajikistan decreased by 8 percent during the first half of the 2016 calendar year.

Anti-immigration sentiments in Russia, the declining value of the Tajik currency, and tighter visa restrictions for non-EEU migrants played a major role in this decline. Nevertheless, as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Paul Stronski notes, the steepness of the decline in Tajik migration to Russia can be at least partially explained by a sizable number of Tajiks returning home by choice.

As economic prospects for Tajik workers in Russia decline, many Tajiks have concluded that the negative attributes of life as a guest worker in Russia outweigh the economic opportunities. In the first six months of this year, 436 Tajik citizens died in Russia. Many of these deaths were attributable to accidents and racist attacks. According to RFE/RL's Tajik Service, 6,000 Tajik workers who typically would have migrated to Russia have settled in Kazakhstan instead.

Large-scale Tajik emigration from Russia the year before a potential EEU membership application differs strikingly from the situation in Kyrgyzstan before Bishkek joined the EEU in July 2015. While much of the 5.4 percent increase in Kyrgyz worker migration to Russia in 2015 can be attributed to Kyrgyzstan's EEU accession, the trend line in the first half of last year was uniformly positive.

As Catherine Putz argued in a recent article for The Diplomat, Kyrgyzstan's Eurasian integration struggles could have sullied Tajik perceptions of the EEU and contributed to a decline in Tajik migration to Russia. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon will likely support EEU accession to preempt unrest caused by rising poverty levels and returning guest workers.

To appease anti-EEU Tajiks who fear growing Russian hegemony over Tajikistan, Rahmon will try his best to strengthen economic ties with Dushanbe's extra-regional allies. As Tajikistan lacks the natural resources Kazakhstan possesses and has an even poorer investment climate than Kyrgyzstan, Rahmon's bid to combine EEU membership with trade diversification is an uphill struggle.

Concerns About Russia's Role As Guarantor Of Tajik Security

Russia has been the primary guarantor of Tajikistan's security since the 1992-97 civil war. But Moscow's commitment to preserving Tajikistan's security was called into question by Russia's February decision to downgrade its military presence from a "division" to a "brigade." As Tajik nationalists resent Russia's military presence in Tajikistan and Russia had announced plans a few months earlier to expand its division from 7,000 to 9,000 men, some analysts speculated that tensions between Rahmon and Putin were responsible for Russia's change in policy.

While rumored frictions between the Russian and Tajik presidents are unsubstantiated, Dmitry Popov, a Central Asia expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, claims that Russia's military downgrade was motivated by a desire to appease Tajik officials who resisted Moscow's dictation of Tajikistan's security policy. Some Tajik officials disdain Russia's policy of expanding and reducing its troop presence in Tajikistan without consulting the Tajik government. As Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov admitted to Deutsche Welle that he was not informed about February's redistribution, opposition to Russia's secrecy on military base activities has continued to fester.

Frustrations with Russia's unwillingness to consult the Tajik government on military activities impacting Tajikistan's security have been exacerbated by criminal activity on Russia's military base. Joshua Kucera of Eurasianet described in July 2015 how Russian military personnel had been implicated in a string of violent crimes in Tajikistan. These crimes included the murder of a Tajik taxi driver in fall 2014, and an assault of a Tajik waiter in early 2015. As Russian military base personnel are given de facto immunity for crimes committed on Tajik soil, a sense of injustice has created strains between Russian troops and their Tajik hosts. On July 28, the Tajik government lodged a protest over a Russian soldier's killing of a Tajik woman named Shoira Jabborova, and urged Moscow to crack down on violent crime by servicemen at Russia's Tajik base.

In March 2015, Tajik courts lifted a ban on Tajiks serving in the Russian military to reduce unemployment rates in Tajikistan. This decision allows Tajiks who speak Russian and have received Russian military training to find employment in their home country. The Tajik government's aim is to stop Russia's use of its Tajik military base as a dumping ground for poorly trained and insubordinate conscripts.

This policy has angered opponents of deeper economic integration with Russia. As Russian military participation gives Tajiks Russian citizenship and an opportunity to work in Russia full-time, EEU integration could result in the defection of the most capable Tajik military personnel to Moscow's military base. This would drastically increase Tajikistan's security dependence on Russia and compromise Dushanbe's sovereignty.

Increased Tajik presence at Russia's base has not made Moscow's military activities more transparent to Tajiks. A December 2015 report from Tajik private media outlet Asia-Plus alleged that Russian diplomats held a covert diplomatic summit with Taliban representatives in Tajikistan without the Tajik government's consent. The veracity of this report was confirmed by the Russian ambassador to Tajikistan, Igor Lyakin-Frolov, who insisted that Russia merely held discussions with Taliban officials, and did not negotiate with the Taliban. Frolov's calibration response did little to assuage Tajik frustration with the opacity of Russian interventions into Tajikistan's internal politics.

In light of Russia's breaches of Tajikistan's sovereignty, deeper economic integration with Russia could result in a backlash from Tajikistan's military command and a possible repeat of last fall's highly destabilizing mutiny. The Tajik Defense Ministry has vehemently denied military brain-drain speculation. But if EEU integration causes too many Tajiks to pursue Russian citizenship, Rahmon could reinstate his ban on Tajiks enlisting in the Russian military. That move would appease Tajik nationalists, but could exacerbate poverty at a time when the Tajik financial system is veering toward insolvency.

The majority of Tajiks support Rahmon's push for EEU integration. But closer ties with Russia have also proven to be more controversial than Tajik policymakers expected. In order to prevent instability and appease nationalists, Rahmon has to demonstrate that deeper integration with Russia will not jeopardize Tajikistan's sovereignty and relationships with non-EEU trade partners. As Russia shows few signs of backing off on its hegemonic aspirations in Central Asia, Rahmon could have a difficult time proving his case for swift EEU integration.

Samuel Ramani is a doctorate-of-philosophy candidate in international relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and The Diplomat magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at @SamRamani2.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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