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

Tajikistan Turns to The West

The former Soviet republic appears to be cutting its traditional ties with Russia to capitalise on its post-September 11 strategic importance.
By Rashid G

The new year is ushering something of a new era for Tajikistan, as it moves away from its traditional strategic partner Russia towards a closer relationship with the West.


This change in the former Soviet republic's foreign policy was cemented last month when President Imomali Rakhmonov made the first official visits to the United States and France since Tajikistan gained its independence in 1991.


International and domestic commentators saw the president's meetings with his counterparts George W Bush and Jacques Chirac as the strongest sign yet that Tajikistan was drawing a line under its historic association with Russia.


Recent tension between the two nations has been sparked mostly by an increased western presence in the region following the September 11 attacks on America and confrontations over Tajik migrants working in Russia and.


Rakhmonov's visit coincided with a storm in the Tajik media over Russia's late-November deportation of 200 Tajiks who had been employed in construction sites around Moscow, ostensibly because they lacked residence permits.


Leading Tajik lawyer and sociologist Ashurbov Imomov told IWPR that the deportation was "legally dubious", and had violated a series of international human rights conventions.


Analysts believe that the move was connected to a series of articles in the Russian media, which criticised the Tajik president for his decision to visit the West.


Sanobar Shermatova, commenting in the Russian newspaper Moskovskie Novosti on November 29, said, "The deportation of Tajik migrants is political pressure and must be seen as a warning."


Shukhrat Sadiev, a lecturer at the department of history and international relations at the Russian-Tajik Slavic University, told IWPR that Moscow's reaction is based on a fear that improved relations between Tajikistan and America will damage Russian interests in the region.


The past 15 months have seen tremendous change in the Tajikistan. Before September 11, 2001, the only western countries that had embassies in the republic were Germany and America. Since that time, Britain, France and Japan have opened diplomatic missions in Dushanbe.


A western military presence was also established on Tajik soil for the first time, with French soldiers stationed in the republic as part of the international offensive against Islamic militants in neighbouring Afghanistan.


High-ranking political and military figures are now visiting Dushanbe to hold talks with the authorities. Late last year, French defence minister Michele Alliot-Marie met with President Rakhmonov, deputy prime minister Saidamir Zukhurov, defence chief Sherali Khairulloev and foreign ministry head Talbak Nazarov.


Iskandar Asadullaev, former director of the president's Centre of Strategic Research, said Russia's position in Central Asia has been weakening for some time, and that this has been thrown into sharp relief by America's growing power.


In such a climate, it seems, the Central Asian nations, unable to count on Russian financial assistance, have little choice but to improve their political, economic and military relations with the West.


America has already stepped up its aid to the republic. Last year, Tajikistan received around 142 million US dollars in assistance, compared to a total of 580 million for the whole of the previous decade. President Bush has already promised Rakhmonov more than 50 million dollars in grants and humanitarian aid for 2003 alone.


As a result of this new relationship with the West - and the international media attention that was bound to follow - Tajikistan has made some much-needed improvements to its human rights record.


The authorities have dropped criminal charges against exiled opposition journalist Dodojon Atovullo, relaxed the censorship of the internet, reduced the cost of registration for local non-governmental organisations and worked with a Red Cross committee to allow full access to the republic's jails.


In spite of the benefits of an improved relationship with the West, Tajikistan is in no hurry to sever its links with Moscow. The vast majority of the 900,000 Tajik migrants who leave in search of seasonal work end up in Russia, where they earn far higher wages than those on offer in their poverty-stricken and civil war-ravaged home.


However, if Moscow continues to warn Dushanbe away from an association with America by deporting or obstructing Tajik labour migrants, relations with Russia may deteriorate.


Rashid G Abdullo is a political analyst in Dushanbe


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