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Tajik Leader Arrives In Moscow With More Leverage, Less Faith

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev welcomes his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon to Moscow. Will the talks continue to be so cordial?
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev welcomes his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon to Moscow. Will the talks continue to be so cordial?
Emomali Rahmon appears to have more than small talk on his mind as he arrives in Moscow to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

While bilateral and regional cooperation are to be the focus of the two days of discussions, the Tajik president reportedly has a full arsenal of demands -- including assurances of Russia's commitment to numerous investment projects and military deals, and even a timetable for the disbursement of promised funding.

Specifically, Rahmon will want to know when and if Moscow will deliver on a five-year-old promise to invest $2 billion in Tajik energy and infrastructure projects.

In desperate need of foreign investment to help it through the global economic crisis, Tajikistan has made clear in recent weeks that it is open to working with anyone who can deliver -- and has made overtures to Brussels, Washington, and Tehran.

"Tajikistan wants investments -- not in words but in practice," says Vladimir Mukhin, a Moscow-based expert on military and political affairs. "For instance, it wants the Roghun hydropower plant to be constructed."

Water Issues

Tajikistan's recent complications with Moscow, and neighboring states, largely center on the completion of Roghun.

In addition to bristling over Russia's failure to deliver on then-President Vladimir Putin's 2004 promise of $2 billion, which would have gone a long way toward completing Roghun and relieving massive energy shortages, Tajikistan has taken offense at Moscow's apparent siding with Uzbek objections to the project.

Tajikistan has vast untapped hydropower potential.
During an official visit to Tashkent in January, Russian President Medvedev said any Central Asian hydropower projects must take the concerns of neighboring countries into consideration. Because Uzbekistan has long argued that regional hydropower projects could leave it with severe water shortages, Medvedev's comments were perceived in Tajikistan as a sign that Moscow was working against Dushanbe's interests

Tajikistan objected sharply to the statement, Rahmon's scheduled visit to Moscow for talks with Medvedev were cancelled, and his subsequent visit to the Russian capital for a military cooperation summit was clouded by the controversy.

Shortly after leaving Moscow empty-handed, Rahmon made a quick trip to Brussels that resulted in promises of increased economic cooperation, vowed to go ahead with Tajikistan's hydropower projects with or without Russian approval, and mentioned Tehran as a potential partner.

Competing For Access

In the meantime, Tajikistan entered negotiations on allowing NATO to transit nonlethal military cargo across Tajik territory en route to Afghanistan, while media speculated that the use of a Tajik military base might be offered to the United States.

The moves are seen as helping counter Russia's perceived role in ending the U.S. military's use of Kyrgyzstan's Manas air base, a key air bridge for supplying the Afghan war effort. The closure of Manas was announced just a day prior to Rahmon's last visit to Moscow, and came as Kyrgyzstan secured some $2 billion in Russian investment and loans of its own.

Marat Mamadshoev, a political observer in Tajikistan, says Rahmon has learned a few lessons from Kyrgyzstan's recent dealings with Russia.

"Tajikistan wants to receive at least the same amount of support that Kyrgyzstan has recently received from Russia," Mamadshoev says. "Perhaps Tajikistan is expecting more because officials in Dushanbe believe they have more significance and have more to offer than Kyrgyzstan could."

Rahmon also has other cards to play.

One is the issue of Russia's continued military presence in Tajikistan. The country currently hosts a Russian base with some 7,500 troops -- Russia's largest military contingent outside its own borders.

Another is Moscow's lease of the Okno space-surveillance complex outside the Tajik town of Nurek. The Okno complex is believed to be a convenient observation post for Russia to monitor Chinese missile launches, among other space-watching activities.

And Moscow for some time has been seeking to sign an agreement enabling Russia to use the Ayni military airport outside the Tajik capital.

Careful Give And Take

Taking these military and other needs into account, Mukhin believes that Moscow will ultimately seek a compromise to satisfy Rahmon. This, he says, is because Tajikistan remains an "important partner for Russia in many ways."

"First of all, Tajikistan has geopolitical importance. It will be one of key players in the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan -- at least in Afghanistan's northern borders," Mukhin says.

"Secondly, Tajikistan's natural resources are important for Russia, because Russia doesn't have enough uranium. Tajikistan has vast resources of other rare metals that need to be explored. It gives a good opportunity to develop Russian businesses."

That isn't to say that Moscow will enter the talks from a position of weakness, however.

Moscow's political dominance in the region is unquestioned, and Tajikistan remains heavily dependent on Russia for trade and income -- the remittances sent home from an estimated 1 million migrant workers in Russia alone contribute greatly to the Tajik economy.

And with the issue of migrant workers taking domestic jobs a hot topic in Russia, and Tajikistan not currently keen on reabsorbing them into its workforce, Rahmon will likely tread carefully in negotiations.
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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.