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Tajikistan: Putin To Visit Dushanbe Amid Warming Russian-Central Asian Ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow pays an official visit to Tajikistan. Russian and Tajik experts both say each side has something to gain from warmer ties. For Russia, it is the opportunity to regain influence in Central Asia. For Tajikistan, such meetings may foster economic cooperation and much-needed investment.

Prague, 25 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Dushanbe tomorrow has prompted talk on both sides about the significance of the trip.

Igor Sattorov, a Tajik Foreign Ministry spokesman, gave the official agenda for tomorrow's talks between Putin and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov: "Issues related to bilateral relations, and the further expansion of those relations, will be discussed at the meeting."

Moscow and Dushanbe have signed some 150 agreements related to bilateral cooperation, but few have ever been implemented. Some observers believe the true significance of the presidential meeting is Russia's desire to reassert its waning influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Correspondent Viktoria Panfilova covers Central Asian issues for Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" newspaper. She said Russia stepped up its focus on the region shortly before the United States launched its war in Iraq. Moscow was seeking additional support for its opposition to the U.S.-led campaign, but Panfilova said Tajikistan -- which declared itself opposed, but neutral -- proved a disappointment to officials in the Kremlin.

"When Russian Foreign Minister [Igor Ivanov] visited Central Asia before the war in Iraq trying to gather support from the region, he didn't receive enough support from Tajikistan. Then President Putin decided to visit the country himself," Panfilova said.

Many journalists are now keeping an eye on a treaty specifying details for a Russian military base to be built in Tajikistan. Tajik government officials have confirmed the final agreement on the base will be signed during Putin's visit. But some experts say that the agreement will merely give a new name and status to Russian forces that have been deployed in Tajikistan since 1945. Russia maintains some 25,000 troops in Tajikistan. Its 201st Motor Rifle Division is deployed in Dushanbe and Russian soldiers also patrol Tajikistan's southern border with Afghanistan.

Another agreement to be signed during Putin's visit is on Russian investment in the Roghun hydropower plant in eastern Tajikistan. Unlike the Russian military base, the hydropower facility issue is not making headlines in the Russian and Tajik media. But some experts say the investment will hand control of the region's water and energy resources to Russia.

Construction of the Roghun hydroelectric station began in the early 1980s, but was not completed due to lack of funds. With the capacity to produce some 3.2 million kilowatts (or 3,600 megawatts) of electricity an hour, the Roghun station is slated to become the most powerful hydroelectric facility in all of Asia, according to the Tajik Energy Ministry. The ministry also says that Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Pakistan have all expressed their willingness to import electricity from Tajikistan.

The Roghun plant, along with the Norak and Sangtuda hydropower stations -- also located along the Vakhsh River -- will also provide an opportunity to coordinate water resources in the region.

Water and energy issues have been second only to religious extremism as a source of conflict in Central Asia over the past 10 years. Tajikistan, along with neighboring Kyrgyzstan, owns most of the region's water resources. Uzbekistan, whose economy heavily depends on agriculture, lacks water supplies it needs for its cotton crops. Water is also in high demand downstream in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

Panfilova told RFE/RL that Russia is likely to use its investment in Roghun to have a say in the regional competition for water, which has already reached crisis levels. "If Russia gets the Roghun hydropower station under its control, Russia can use it as an instrument of pressure against the Central Asian countries. Water, gas, and energy resources are the best way of applying pressure, even political pressure," she said.

While Russia is allegedly pursuing military and other strategic interests in Tajikistan, the Tajik side, for its part, is keen on fostering close economic cooperation with Russia. Russia is Tajikistan's main trade partner, accounting for more than 35 percent of its foreign trade.

Suhrob Sharifov is a political analyst with the Tajik National Center for Strategic Studies. He told RFE/RL that Tajikistan prefers Russia as an economic partner, because Moscow usually invests its money with relatively few preconditions. But Sharifov said Dushanbe has spent considerable time waiting for Russian investment, and its patience may be wearing thin.

"It's not a secret that for many years Tajikistan has held its major industrial facilities for Russian investment. Tajikistan wouldn't give them to investors from other countries. They were practically reserved for Russia. Now it is time for Russia to decide whether to make an investment or let Tajikistan invite other investors," Sharifov said.

Russia is not Tajikistan's only potential long-term investor. During the past year, Tajikistan received a significant amount of financial aid from the U.S. and other Western countries. But according to Tajik expert Rustam Haidarov, Dushanbe has never made public how that money was spent.

"I am sure Western countries sent a lot of financial aid to Tajikistan," Haidarov said. "But our people have no idea where and how the money was spent. They hear from the radio or TV that Tajikistan received some foreign economic aid and the money was spent for building new houses, for restoration of a highway, etc. But in reality, people don't see any improvement, any change. The Western aid has no impact on their daily lives. On the other hand, more than a million of our migrant laborers bring in cash from Russia and in fact, it is their only income."

Tajik officials confirm that the country receives more than $60 million a month from its migrant laborers in Russia. With jobs hard to find at home, more than a million Tajiks go to Russia every year in search of work.

Sources close to the Tajik government say that the status of Tajik migrants in Russia will also be discussed at this weekend's meeting. So far, the Russian side has been reluctant to grant any status to Tajik workers, and Russian authorities have deported some migrants with no explanation.

Haidarov said the Tajik side is confident Russia will change its attitude and eventually treat Tajikistan as an equal partner. "After the war in Iraq, the U.S. influence is strengthening and the world is becoming more and more unipolar. It is going to force Russia to increase its cooperation with the former Soviet countries. I think Russia will have to drop its attitude and stop behaving like an 'older brother' with other Commonwealth [of Independent States] countries. Russia has no choice and is close to losing its remaining influence, both in Central Asia and in the Caucasus," he said.

Haidarov said with U.S. influence on the rise globally, Russia now realizes it may need to act quickly -- and respectfully -- in order to secure a fruitful partnership with the Central Asian states. Otherwise, he said, the region's governments may take their business elsewhere.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.