The nature of Russian-Tajik relations appears to be changing. The two have enjoyed very close ties since the breakup of the Soviet Union and Tajik independence, but that relationship seems to be cooling off. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that some of this new distance may be due to the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops in Tajikistan.
Prague, 11 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Recent signs point to strains in Russia's relationship with the Central Asian country of Tajikistan -- traditionally Russia's closest ally in Central Asia.
The latest indications came early this month, during the visit to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, by Armenian President Robert Kocharian. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov took the occasion to point out the importance to Tajikistan and Armenia of a strategic relationship with Russia. Then he surprised his audience by noting that Russia has never indicated it feels the same way.
"Tajikistan and Armenia are strategic partners of Russia. Let the Russian side say once that Russia is also a strategic partner of Tajikistan and Armenia. We have said this often, but Russia has never said it," Rakhmonov said.
The speech followed a special -- and puzzling -- remark by Rakhmonov late last month, affirming that the Tajik language has been and will remain the country's official language.
The remark was widely viewed as a snub to Russia, since Tajikistan's neighbors to the north, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have both made special efforts to elevate the status of the Russian language in their countries.
To be sure, no great rift between the two is expected. Russia played a major role in ending Tajikistan's five-year civil war. Russian soldiers of the 201st Division, still stationed in the country, guarded vital facilities during the war and helped the government maintain power. Russian border guards also still keep watch on the dangerous Tajik-Afghan border.
But a number of minor incidents indicate that strains are developing. In February, the Russian president's representative to the State Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov, said during a debate on a citizenship bill that Moscow is full of what he called "beggars and Tajiks."
Not long after that, Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Lukin said "Tajiks are people who travel freely to Russia, something that could help create conditions for an uprising or revolution."
Both men were referring to the thousands of Tajiks who work in Moscow and other Russian cities where wages are far higher than the $10 per month Tajiks can earn at home.
The Tajik parliament did not take the comments lightly and sent a letter demanding an apology. It received no reply.
Then there is the problem of railway and air links between Russia and Tajikistan. The train link from Dushanbe to Astrakhan in Russia, a vital link for Tajiks who work or have family in Russia, is closed.
Russian Minister of Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu, in Tajikistan last month, blamed the problem on Kazakhstan, where trains originating from Tajikistan have been turned back.
But that explanation was not well received in Dushanbe where some officials suspect the Russians may be trying to keep Tajiks out of the country. When the Tajik side asked to send a special delegation along the route, the Russian officials told them it would not be possible, as Tajik trains have what they called "technical problems."
Tajik journalist Jumakhan Saidalliev said the closing of the Astrakhan line could have social repercussions in Tajikistan. "I think the closing of the Dushanbe-Astrakhan railway will mean that thousands of people cannot leave for work. It could threaten the social harmony of the country."
Flying to Russia, moreover, is seen as less and less of an option as ticket prices continue to rise. An air ticket from Dushanbe to Moscow now costs about $200, up from around $170 recently.
The Tajik Ministry of Transportation says the price hikes were prompted by Russia. "The price of plane tickets was raised by the Russian company Aeroflot, and the sixth point of the Russian-Tajik intergovernmental agreement on transportation states that we must raise prices also."
It's not clear what may be behind the recent friction. Some speculate that Tajikistan may be enjoying its newfound status as an ally of the U.S. in its war on terrorism. Tajikistan's proximity to Afghanistan has raised its profile in the West and brought coalition troops to its bases.
Any worsening of ties is not expected to reduce the country's long-term dependence on Russia or the enthusiasm of young Tajik conscripts joining the Russian Army. Young men, when offered the choice of joining the Tajik or the Russian Army, often choose the latter. Service in the Russian Army offers the prospects of Russian citizenship and higher pay.
(Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)