January 24, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Tajikistan: A Country At Strategic And Economic Impasse
Palace of Nations, Dushanbe
Tajikistan at a Glance
The English translation of Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, is “Monday.” It was once a popular village marketplace on Mondays, among people coming from surrounding villages. It is the only Persian speaking country in Central Asia and it has strong cultural ties to Iran. Tajikistan is a landlocked state and remains one of the poorest in the region. It is heavily dependent on remittances from Tajik migrant laborers in Russia, and in urgent need of developing its untapped hydropower resources. Tajikistan also suffers from poor transportation infrastructure, a factor that has negatively impacted its geopolitical status in the region.
Due to poor governance and corruption, the government in Dushanbe has proved vulnerable to the flow of illicit drugs and movement of Islamic extremists from Afghanistan. In recent years, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have bitterly disputed management of water resources, the fight against drug trafficking, and development of transportation infrastructure. Tension between Dushanbe and Tashkent largely stems from issues related to the Fergana Valley.
Officially a secular republic with a majority Sunni Muslim population, Tajikistan gained its independence from the Soviet Union in late 1991, and shortly after experienced a civil war that lasted until 1997. Elections were held in 1999, in which Emomali Rahmon emerged victorious with 98% of the vote. Though elections were peaceful, there were allegations of voting irregularity and widespread rigging. Rahmon first came to power in 1994, and in November 2013, began his fourth term with nearly 87% of the vote. Tajikistan has a one-party system with the People’s Democratic Party holding a nearly permanent dominant status. Rahmon’s government has been criticized for widespread corruption, intolerance of dissent, poor public policy in education, ineffective fight against illicit drugs, and harsh treatment of Islamic extremist groups.
Tajikistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an organization pioneered and led by Russia.
The Fergana Valley is a territory with undefined borders encompassing parts of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. One of the most densely populated territories in Central Asia, and known for its centuries-old orchards, vineyards, and diverse mineral resources, the Valley is contested among the three states and the site of occasional ethnic violence. For centuries Persians settled in the Valley and expanded their civilization and empire throughout Central Asia. Later Arabs and Mongols occupied it, expanding the Islamic faith and Turkic culture, respectively.
On January 11, the part of Valley bordering Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan was the site of armed clashes between the countries’ forces, with injuries on both sides. There are reports Tajik forces used heavy weaponry, which could indicate a new phase in a simmering multi-state conflict. Given the region’s bounty of natural resources, investors fear that clashes could lead to the militarization of the Valley, which would have negative consequences for economic development. Russia has surprisingly remained silent on the latest border skirmishes.
The Tajik government has a set of key strategic imperatives whose attainment can shape the country’s regional geopolitical status and define its future outlook. They are:
• Hydropower generation
• Railroad transportation infrastructure
• Fight against illicit drugs and Islamic extremism.
The development of hydropower generation is one of the key imperatives because the country is endowed with abundant water resources (having more than 65 per cent of the region’s glaciers), while at the same time suffering from energy shortages. The Sangtuda and Rogun hydropower plants are at the core of these efforts. Sangtuda-1 hydropower dam was completed in 2009, with Russian investment, and Sangtuda-2 was completed in 2012, with Iranian investment. Uzbekistan has created logistical difficulties for the massive Rogun project, however, due to Tashkent’s fear of curtailed access to water resources. There is also rivalry-based consternation in Tashkent at the prospects of Dushanbe emerging as a major exporter of hydro power in Central and South Asia.
Transportation is another key strategic imperative for Tajikistan. The country’s border disputes with Uzbekistan have partly impeded Tajik efforts to develop an advanced transportation infrastructure. So Dushanbe has turned its focus to inter-state railroad projects, the most significant of which is the Tajik-Afghan-Turkmen Railroad Project. The 500km project is aimed at connecting the landlocked regional countries with Southeast Asian and Eurasian markets. The project is funded by the Asian Development Bank and bears high strategic value for the countries involved. For Tajikistan, it is a notable opportunity to increase its ability to export products, with much greater ease.
The fight against illicit drugs has turned into a strategic imperative for Tajikistan. The 1300km Tajik-Afghan border is porous and poorly policed, with an estimated annual flow through Tajikistan to world markets of nearly 90 tons of narcotics. The issue is a significant national security challenge for Dushanbe. Tajikistan has received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the US and Europe for economic development and counter narcotics trafficking, but little has been accomplished due to corruption and poor governance.
Islamic extremism is another issue of national security significance. Rahmon’s government has been criticized for its harsh approach to, and treatment of, Islamists. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, with strong ties in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, has been greatly diminished. It currently poses little risk to the state, but the Tajik leadership remains deeply concerned about potential national security implications of the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
• The US will continue to assist the country in the area of security and drug trafficking
• Iran, due to economic isolation and its brand of sectarianism, will continue to have a marginal role in Tajik affairs despite strong cultural affinities between the two countries
• Education policy will undergo reforms to better appeal to the young and develop a skilled work force
• Europe, as a key destination for Afghan and Tajik narcotics, will continue to be strongly involved in assisting Dushanbe in its fight against the illicit drug trade
• India will continue investing in Tajikistan’s infrastructure projects and providing it military training as part of Dehli’s security calculus focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan and preventing the flow of violent extremists into Indian-controlled Kashmir.
• Tajikistan’s population is nearly eight million, with largest ethnic groups represented by Tajik at 80%, and Uzbek at 15%
• Nearly 54% of the population is between the ages of 0-24
• Literacy rate is among the world’s highest at nearly 100%
• Though having one of the lowest per capita GDPs, its 2012 real growth rate estimate was among the top 25 in the world at 7.5%, and was consistently over 7% for 2013
• Tajikistan ranked 143 of 189 countries assessed in the 2014 World Bank, International Finance Corporation Ease of Doing Business survey
• Tajikistan is approximately 85% Sunni Muslim and 5% Shi’a Muslim.
The Soufan Group dedicates its weekly geopolitical analysis on Central Asia to the memory of Dr Alexandros Petersen, one of the foremost experts on Central Asian affairs. Doctor Petersen died last week in a terrorist attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and colleagues.
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