Andras Molnar examines how a small Central Asian country can command such significant power, and maintain a corrupt, autocratic regime.
Few journalists paid any attention to a presidential election in Central Asia in November 2013. Everyone knew the outcome of Tajikistan’s poll – it has been the same since 1992. That was the year when Emomali Rahmon first won the race, and since then he has given no other opponent a chance. However, even though Tajikistan with its 8 million people is regarded as a state with many failings and serious human rights violations, it has a crucial role both in the order of the Central Asian region and internationally, as a result of water, energy and military security issues.
Tajikistan is a country with a weak rule of law, the absence of civil society, high levels of corruption, and dependency on foreign aid. Furthermore, the country has one of the lowest per capita GDPs among the 15 former Soviet republics. Because of a lack of employment opportunities in Tajikistan, more than one million Tajik citizens work abroad, almost all of them in Russia, supporting families in Tajikistan through remittances. Half of the population lives below the poverty line. Only 700,000 people have access to Internet, placing Tajikistan at 110th place in the world in terms of Internet access. The country is also dependent on oil and gas imports.
Between 1992 and 1997, Tajikistan also had to suffer from a civil war. The five-year civil war between the Moscow-backed government and the Islamist-led opposition, in which more than 50,000 people were killed and over one-tenth of the population fled the country, ended in 1997 with a United Nations-brokered peace agreement.
Rahmon used the chaotic situation after the Civil War to strengthen his position. He eliminated his political rivals and changed the constitution. He also made sure that the former rebels of the Civil War would not be able to rise up against his power. First, he granted them military amnesty and ignored their involvement in drug trafficking and violence across the Afghan border. In July 2012, the president launched a large-scale and entirely unexpected military attack against the autonomous region of Badakshan, where he sought to destroy the rebels and strengthen state authority over the region. This action reveals that despite the fragile stability, the country still suffers both economically and politically from the 1992-97 Civil War.
Recently, Tajikistan makes headlines with its human rights violations and authoritarian, corrupt regime. The United States Department of State made a long list of human rights abuses including “torture and abuse of detainees and other persons by security forces, restrictions on freedoms of expression and the free flow of information…”. Further, Rahmon’s oppressive regime brought actions against the opposition and the media. One of Rahmon’s political enemies, Sherik Kharamkudoev was sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment just six months before the presidential election.
Nonetheless, the regime survives on the support of Russia and the United States. These countries are aware of the fact that Tajikistan is more significant than it seems and can be a key player in the regional balance of Central Asia.
At the heart of Tajikistan’s importance is its supply of fresh water. According to the Central Asian Fund of Strategic Research almost all the regional water supply – about eighty per cent – is to be found in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but is also consumed by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Countries such as Kyrgyzstan want to benefit from hydropower, yet each state has its own objectives and cooperation has not been forthcoming.
Russia also uses the lack of cooperation to strengthen its regional power. It is clear that Moscow has a great interest in the water resources of Tajikistan and realises the regional importance of the country. As a result, Tajikistan is part of many economic and military alliances dominated by Russia, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Eurasian Economic Community and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Furthermore, Russia recently signed a contract with Tajikistan allowing the 201st Motor Rifle Division Russian military base to remain in the country until 2042. The deal will also see Russia give Tajikistan $220 million in material aid.
However, the United States and NATO also realise the strategic importance of Tajikistan. NATO-Tajikistan relations date back to 1992, when the country joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council and the Partnership for Peace in 2002 to work alongside the Allies in areas where bilateral aims converge. Since joining PfP, Tajikistan has played an active role in hosting and participating in PfP exercises. Furthermore, the US is also interested in the deployment of NATO and US military facilities in Tajikistan after 2014. International aid allocated to Tajikistan recently reached $222 million per year, of which the US provided the greatest share with almost 70 percent.
With both the United States and Russia interested in this small Central Asian country, the geopolitical situation of Tajikistan has established the country as a key player in regional stability. Despite the domestic failure of Dushanbe, neighbouring countries aim to enlist Tajikistan’s favour in order to maintain regional security. Rahmon is successfully using the superpowers for his own benefits and legitimising his regime with the international aid provided by mostly the US and Russia, with the consequence being strict measures against his domestic and regional opponents.