Tajikistan's parliament has approved an agreement to build five new Russian schools in the next three years, with funds largely provided by the Russian government.
The move shows the Tajik authorities' willingness to maintain close ties with Moscow and reflects a growing demand among Tajiks for Russian-language education.
During a parliamentary debate in Dushanbe on January 15, Deputy Education Minister Rahmatullo Mirboboev said the schools will be designed to hold at least 1,200 students each.
The Russian-speaking community has significantly dwindled in the Central Asian country as the population of ethnic Russians has fallen from some 395,000 in 1979 to just 35,000 when the last census was taken in 2010.
Despite that, it's expected there will be no shortage of students for the new Russian-speaking schools.
The demand among Tajiks for more educational facilities in which Russian is the language of instruction has risen both in cities and rural areas in recent years.
There are already 32 Russian-only schools in Tajikistan, with 10 of them established in the past two years.
Dozens of mixed-language schools offer education in both Tajik and Russian classes, taught separately.
Tajik parents who enroll their children in Russian schools say it will enhance their chances of studying in Russian universities and getting well-paid, white-collar jobs in Russia.
Unemployment is rampant and wages very low in Tajikistan, one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics. The average monthly wage in October was $140.
"My eldest son goes to a Russian school," says Zahro, a pediatrician from the northern province of Sughd who didn't want to give her full name.
She says her younger son couldn't get a place in the Russian school and that he is "currently studying in Tajik" while waiting for a vacancy.
"A longer-term plan for them is to study medicine in Russia, possibly in some smaller cities where living costs are not high," Zahro said. "The children are working hard, we're also getting additional private instruction in chemistry and physics."
Like many other Tajiks, Zahro believes the Russian-language schools in Tajikistan generally offer a better-quality education.
Russian schools are the second-best option for middle-income parents like Zahro, who can't afford to send their children to private schools.
There are dozens of private schools and lyceums -- including English schools -- that enjoy a reputation for providing quality education with a broader range of extracurricular offerings, smaller class sizes, and experienced teachers.
Plans to open more Russian schools in Tajikistan were discussed during a meeting between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Dushanbe in September 2018, the Tajik leader's official website reported.
Rahmon has always maintained a close relationship with "strategic partner" Russia, which hosts many hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrant workers.
The migrants' remittances -- estimated at around $2.5 billion and equal to about one-third of the country's gross domestic product in 2018 -- is an important factor for Tajikistan's social and economic stability.
Russia, in turn, has always been keen to keep Central Asia within its sphere of influence, and uses Russian-language education and the lure of economic opportunities as a tool of soft power.
Since August 2018, Moscow has sent more than 100 Russian teachers to Tajikistan -- a mountainous country of some 8.9 million people -- while also providing textbooks for the country's Russian schools.
A large portion of the teachers' wages are reportedly paid by the Russian Education Ministry.
During his annual press conference on December 19, 2019, Putin mentioned the need to open more Russian schools in Central Asia.
"It is more difficult to adapt for those who come, for example, from Central Asia. What can we do? We have to introduce our education systems, open Russian-language courses, Russian schools, and university branches," said Putin when asked about Russia's demographic situation and the immigration issues his country faces.
Tajik education officials say the five new schools will be built over the next three years in the capital, Dushanbe, as well as in the cities of Khujand in the country's north, Bokhtar and Kulob in the south, and the western town of Tursunzoda.