Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajikistan: Making Friends with the Neighbours

The south of the country has seen a rise in border trade with Afghanistan, but some fear a new influx of heroin.
By Valentina Kasymbekova
For more than a century, the winding line that follows the upper course of the Oxus river has been a sharp political divide, marking the southern frontier of first the Russian empire, then the Soviet Union and now the independent state of Tajikistan.



Contact with Afghanistan to the south was limited by political considerations, and in the last two decades by Afghan conflict and the 1992-97 Tajik civil war.



But these days things are changing – the border is now a crossing point for local traders and the Tajik and Afghan governments are talking of export markets and transit routes.



Some people on the Tajik side of the border fear an upsurge in another kind of trade - Afghan heroin travelling north to Russia and other European markets.



Although the Taleban did not control northeastern Afghanistan, it was only when they were ousted from Kabul in late 2001 and replaced by the administration of President Hamed Karzai that relations revived between the two countries.



Last year, Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov visited Afghanistan and signed a series of agreements on economic and other forms of cooperation.



As well as sharing much in common – the people of northeastern Afghanistan are ethnic Tajiks sharing their language and Muslim faith with the people of Tajikistan – the two countries have many practical reasons to work together.



Tajikistan is enclosed on two sides by Uzbekistan, which imposes tight strict border controls that reduce trade possibilities with the rest of the former Soviet Union. With travel to China to the east still an arduous journey, Tajikistan has limited access to external markets.



The Afghans, for their part, benefit by gaining an alternative trade route.



“All trade used to go through Pakistan because it has access to the sea, but now everything has changed,” according to Sayed Gulabshah Hashimi, an Afghan sociologist who has lived in Tajikistan for many years. “Afghanistan is being reborn and now needs goods, equipment and technology that Pakistan cannot provide. So Afghanistan has naturally turned its attention to the north.”



As well as such strategic issues, trade may also benefit Afghans at a local level, since travelling to Tajikistan can present fewer problems for people in the northeast than moving around in Afghanistan’s interior given the rugged terrain and problematic security situation there.



“It’s much easier for people in Takhar, Kunduz, Wakhan, [Afghan] Badakhshan, and Nuristan to trade with Tajikistan, rather than with the central provinces of their own country,” said Hashimi.



The Panj river, which grows into the Amu Darya, the historical Oxus, is a shared resource as well as a dividing line, since its waters irrigate much of northeast Afghanistan as well as Central Asia.



To facilitate trade and travel, three bridges now span the river where there were none before. The bridges, which link Tajikistan’s southeastern Badakhshan province and neighbouring Darwaz region with Afghanistan, were built by the Aga Khan Foundation.



An ambitious 670-metre bridge funded by the United States government between the towns of Panj and Shir Khan should be ready next year. When the foundation stone was laid last June, President Rahmonov spoke of a revival of the historical Silk Road in which both countries will benefit as transit routes for the wider region.



Customs procedures are being simplified and Afghans can already make short trips across the frontier without getting a visa.



One remarkable new development is the creation of new markets on the Tajik side where Afghans come to trade. There are four in the mountains of Badakhshan, and more are planned for Panj and other towns along the lower-lying western stretch of the border.



A Tajik border guards officer told IWPR that the markets are open on Saturdays, and Afghan traders who leave their passports as security at the border are allowed to travel 25 kilometres into Tajik territory, returning home the same evening.



Sohiba Nurmatova, an economist working with Sapeda, a non-government organisation in Hatlon region, says her group has conducted studies in the Takhar and Kunduz provinces which show the potential of regional trade links.



“They have an agricultural surplus there - wheat, rice and meat - which can be sold at markets in Tajikistan at much lower prices [than local Tajik produce]. Such trade is profitable for people on both sides of the border,” said Nurmatova.



Some fear, however, that increased drug trafficking will go hand in hand with the legitimate trade.



The trade, originally in opium but these days in the refined product, heroin, has gone on at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.



The Karzai government, prompted by its western backers, is now engaged on a nationwide eradication scheme to wipe out the fields of opium poppies. But the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that production has increased steadily since the demise of the Taleban – hitting 4,500 tonnes last year, the highest ever recorded level.



That suggests that the Central Asian countries, along with Iran and Pakistan, can expect high levels of smuggling for years to come.



The transit trade not only skews the economy and spawns official corruption, it also results in more availability of drugs and higher levels of consumption and addiction in transit countries. Tajikistan is no exception and doctors are recording a rising incidence of drug use. At this stage of its journey, heroin is still relatively cheap – a kilogram of heroin worth 150,000 US dollars in Moscow sells for one-tenth that amount in Tajikistan,



Mavluda Aminova, an engineer from Panj, voices fears that are shared by many Tajiks, “I think that instead of genuine traders, we’re going to get drug smugglers crossing the border without visas. Instead of fruit and vegetables they’ll bring drugs.



“Even as things stand now, Tajikistan is already regarded as one of the main drugs trafficking routes.”



The task of curbing the flow falls to the Tajik border guards service. Many observers predicted chaos when the under-funded Tajik force replaced the more experienced and better-equipped Russian frontier guards, who withdrew late last year.



Official data indicate that detection rates of contraband goods including drugs fell after the Russians pulled out.



But Colonel-General Zaidamir Zuhurov, commander-in-chief of the Tajik force said the teething problems would be sorted out and that the current force was to be increased by 2,000.



“We may lack manpower and technology compared with the Russian frontier guards. And unlike them, we don’t have aircraft. But issues of mobility and coverage of the border areas are going to be resolved,” he said.



Zuhurov accepts that funding is the force’s Achilles heel, and that low pay makes the frontier troops more vulnerable to bribery. Conscript soldiers get just 70 US cents a month and professional officers around 30 dollars. He plans to raise wages and introduce contract service for lower ranks.





Zuhurov’s deputy, General Safarali Saifulloev, said that overall, the force has proved a “relatively efficient structure”.



“Russia left Tajikistan with a good frontier infrastructure, and working systems for border defence and personnel training. Today we have practically everything we need to fulfill our duties. We are doing everything possible to improve the defence of our borders.



When it comes to the drugs trade, Saifulloev insisted that his men are engaged in “a merciless war with the traffickers”.



“Tajik frontier guards are as tough in dealing with the smugglers as their Russian predecessors were,” he added.



Some argue that with the right measures in place, legitimate trade should prosper while drugs are filtered out at the border.



“If both countries can establish proper frontier controls, it will be possible to suppress any attempts to smuggle drugs through the border, which is an activity done by criminal gangs rather than the general public,” said Hashimi.



Saifullo Safarov, deputy director of the Centre for Strategic Research in Dushanbe, sees border trade as essential for both nations.



“Of course there’s a risk that this positive venture could be exploited by the drug traffickers for their own ends. But we can’t allow this factor to derail a cause as good as helping Afghanistan re-establish itself. As for the criminals, they are for the frontier guards, the defence ministry and the Drugs Control Agency to deal with.”



Valentina Kasymbekova is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.