Tajik Relations With Russia Worsen

A war of words between Russia and Tajikistan could prompt the latter to strengthen its ties with Washington.

Tajik Relations With Russia Worsen

A war of words between Russia and Tajikistan could prompt the latter to strengthen its ties with Washington.

A rift is opening between Tajikistan and Russia which analysts believe could drive the Central Asian republic into the arms of the United States.

As a onetime Soviet republic, Tajikistan has long treasured its standing as a strategic partner with Moscow. But in the past month, harsh words have been flying between the two, threatening to rupture relations and seriously reduce Russia's influence in the region.

Underlying Moscow's resentment is Dushanbe's active collaboration with the US in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and the likelihood that it will soon permit the opening of an American military base on Tajik territory. Up to now, Tajikistan has been the only Central Asian republic to allow Russian troops on its soil.

Tajiks were irked by provocative Russian statements at the end of February and the beginning of March - Moscow politicians first insulted them and then claimed they posed a security threat to Russia.

"Moscow is full of beggars and Tajiks," said the Russian president's representative, Alexander Kotenkov, at a session of the State Duma in later February. Then about a week later, Vladimir Lukin, the assembly's deputy speaker, said, "Tajiks are people who travel freely to Russia - something that could help to create conditions for an uprising or a revolution."

According to unofficial reports, there are now approximately 500,000 Tajiks in Russia, over 40,000 of them in Moscow. They mostly come looking

for jobs which are scarce in Tajikistan whose the economy has not fully recovered from the 1992-1997 civil war.

The capital's authorities say some Tajiks engage in drug trafficking, others just walk through the city with their children or stand at the metro and beg.

It is not just the Russian police who complain. Ordinary Muscovites say Tajiks control certain markets in the city where they charge high prices for goods imported from their homeland and keep out cheaper items from outlying villages.

The Tajik foreign ministry fired of a vigorous rebuff to the Russian insults. "The remarks made by Alexander Kotenkov are seen in Tajikistan as improper and offensive," a ministry statement said. In a protest to President Vladimir Putin, the Tajik parliament said, "We believe such statements to be totally inadmissible, bringing the friendship of these two states into question."

A harsher response came from the Tajik press and intelligentsia. Gulyam Aliev of the Tajik academy of sciences described the words of the Russian politicians as revolting. He said his people had in the past made a significant contribution to the development of the former USSR and did not deserve such treatment, "It is scandalous that deputies of the Russian State Duma should make such statements."

The Tajik political analyst Rashid Gani told IWPR the Russian statements may foreshadow the introduction of visas for Tajiks visiting Russia. But other commentators felt the remarks merely reflected dissatisfaction at the inflow of Tajiks into Russia.

Either way, there is no doubt that Tajik-Russian relations will deteriorate. Dushanbe has not yet officially agreed to the deployment of American troops on its territory, although the potential benefits of a US base are clear. It could bring not only direct financial aid but also the multi-million dollar investment the country so desperately needs and which Russia cannot afford.

Up to now, the Tajik government has refrained from deciding whether to allow American troops on its soil out of deference to Moscow. But if relations worsen, as they are expect to, Dushanbe might follow the example of its neighbours, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and give a green light for the deployment. This could leave Russia with virtually no influence in Central Asia.

Vladimir Davlatov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan

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