What was Putin doing in Tajikistan?

For his first trip abroad since sending his country’s armed forces to Ukraine in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen Tajikistan.

And few are quite certain why.

The official agenda for Putin’s June 28 working visit seemed mostly unremarkable.

The Kremlin said in a statement ahead of the trip that talks with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon would focus on the strategic alliance between Moscow and Dushanbe and the situation in Afghanistan. No details were provided. Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, said Russia would try again to advocate for Tajikistan’s membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc. This too is not new, however.

RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radioi Ozodi, speculated that other, more delicate subjects could be tackled. The broadcaster noted that Putin and Rahmon were to meet one-on-one, a format suggesting the discussion would wade into sensitive areas.

These hypothetical items on the agenda included the “internal situation” in Tajikistan, the possible assistance Dushanbe could offer Moscow to avoid the full impact of Western sanctions, the need for Rahmon to reconcile with the Taliban regime in the neighboring Afghanistan and the difficult question of succession. treat.

These explanations certainly seem more intriguing and convincing, given that Tajikistan is a relatively second-tier partner for Russia in many other respects.

Nonetheless, the presidents have tried to sell a history of burgeoning relationships. Bilateral trade in the first five months of 2022 saw a 46.2 percent year-on-year increase compared to the same period in 2021, they noted. A planned investment forum in Dushanbe in September should build on that, Rahmon’s office said.

Russia is also expanding its presence in other ways, through building schools. Five new Russian-language schools built with funding from Moscow are scheduled to open in September.

But the specter of a rapid collapse in Russian prosperity caused by the sanctions threatens both the economic and cultural aspects of this relationship. The World Bank estimates that remittances sent home by Tajik migrant workers, the vast majority of whom typically travel to Russia for work, could fall by 40% in 2022. This could cause the Tajik economy to shrink by 2 %, depending on the bank.

Remittances from Russia have long been a lifeline for Tajikistan’s wildly corrupt and incompetent rulers, as they keep people’s heads above water. One of the many drawbacks of this model, however, is that it gives Russia powerful leverage to influence Tajikistan’s internal affairs, since the Kremlin still reserves the right to close its borders to Tajik workers. He often made veiled threats to follow up on this possibility.

Moscow presents itself as the indispensable partner in other ways. The 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan, spread across the cities of Dushanbe and Bokhtar, is the largest it has outside its own borders. Regular joint military exercises with Tajik forces are intended to send the message that if things go wrong and dangerous elements from the south decide to cross the border, Russian forces will hold them back.

And yet, events in Ukraine have dangerously strained this narrative. The mighty Russian army has proven to be a paper tiger prone to relying on atrocities when fighting mobile and highly motivated opponents.

The United States is trying to position itself as a viable alternative to Russia as a guarantor of security – a fact underscored by a visit to Tajikistan last week by US Army General Michael Kurilla, who was appointed to the Head of US Central Command in April.

“Our security assistance [in Tajikistan] focuses primarily on the training, equipment and infrastructure needed to defend the border. Over the past four years, CENTCOM [assistance] to understand[d] ground sensors for Tajik border guards. We also provided all the communications equipment used along the border, including 4,800 radios. We have given Tajikistan more than 400 patrol vehicles,” Kurilla told reporters while in Tajikistan. “This support will continue. I am attached to Tajik sovereignty.

The US Embassy in Dushanbe will soon also oversee work on the new Tajik-Afghan border outpost.

“This is just one example of security sector assistance to Tajikistan,” Kurilla said. “Here’s another one: CENTCOM provided all the communications equipment used by the Tajik security forces along the Afghan border.”

Moreover, Washington does not expect Tajikistan to adopt a conciliatory stance vis-à-vis Afghanistan in its current form.

Russia, meanwhile, is preparing to grant the Taliban regime something akin to recognition. Tajikistan is the strongest against the Taliban among Russia’s close allies in Central Asia and has spoken out harshly against the Taliban’s perceived hostility to ethnic minority groups, notably Tajiks.

Putin tried to reassure Rahmon on this front by assuring him that any dialogue with the Taliban government would require him to recognize Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity.

“We are trying to build relationships with the political forces that control the situation,” Putin was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. “We assume that all ethnic groups in Afghanistan, as has already been said, must participate properly in the management of the country.”

However, security and economic stability may be secondary concerns for the Rahmon regime.

Many observers believe that the priority for the portly 69-year-old Tajik president is to see his kleptocratic family retain power, and the wealth that goes with it, and that this be done through his 34-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, taking the reins.

This process was completed in April 2020, when Emomali was elected speaker of the upper house of parliament, putting him in pole position to succeed his father, who has ruled the country since the early 1990s. job, he replaced Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, a veteran Rahmon associate long known to have been a favorite of the Russian government.

There was speculation that Emomali might even run in the October 2020 election, but this idea was dismissed when his father confirmed he was running once again.

It is a widely held article of faith that such is Russia’s residual influence that any handover would require the Kremlin’s blessing anyway. If Putin granted this sought-after endorsement, change in Tajikistan could be imminent and the meaning of this otherwise uneventful trip could become clearer.

This story was first published by Eurasianet.org.

The Taliban are a banned terrorist organization in Russia.

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