The results of the official visit of RF President V.Putin to Tajikistan that took place on October 4-5 suggest there is a probability of increased tension in the Central Asian region within the nearest 9-12 months.
Moscow’s attention to Tajikistan should be discussed in the context of building up its presence in Central Asia (CA) within the framework of the attempt to create Eurasian geopolitical project. This project is expected to restore Kremlin’s geopolitical influence on the post-Soviet space under new political and economic conditions.
Availability of sufficient energy resources in the region allows some countries to claim to attempt conducting their own foreign policy. Russia’s loss of control over these countries will pose direct threat to both RF’s geopolitical model in the region and its monopoly/control over regular energy carriers transportation routes.
Today, Russia has opportunities for exercising full-scale influence only in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, one may say that Kazakhstan falls under the same influence because pro-Russia moods among local elites and their favouring preservation of Nazarbayev’s regime allows Moscow to overcome the country’s energy independence not least of all by means of involving Astana in the Customs Union. However, due to geographical location, economic potential and political regime Dushanbe still remains the most controlled Russia’s partner in the region helping to efficiently achieve its foreign policy objectives.
Regional Tactical Standpoint. Today, Moscow has faced the issues of developing its geopolitical projects on the territory of Central Asia. Key problems come from official Tashkent (Uzbekistan) which had already suspended its membership in EurAsEu, as well as in CSTO – in 1999 and 2012. As for the latter, Tashkent has not ratified a single significant document. According to our estimations, Uzbekistan’s distancing from CSTO is first of all related to expectations of profitable proposals regarding hosting US military bases on the country’s territory, as well as to the attempts to avoid entering Russia’s geopolitical arena and preserve opportunities for foreign policy manoeuvres. Moreover, Karimov’s regime has been lately under pressure, in particular in respect to businesses related to his daughter Gulnara, and opposition forces in exile declare their plans to organize civil disobedience in Uzbekistan aimed at overthrowing the antidemocratic regime. Similar situation forces Karimov to manoeuvre between Washington and Moscow and remain neutral, at the same time staying interesting and promising for both parties.
Probability of republicans rising to power after the next presidential election in the US will enhance American present in the region in future – especially in the context of conflict with Iran. Moreover, Uzbekistan is the most favourable base for the localization of a part of military forces removed from the territory of Afghanistan in case immediate return and deployment in this country is needed. The US is also expected to relocate to Uzbekistan a part of the armed forces remaining after withdrawing the coalition’s forces in Afghanistan in 2014.
Thus, Russia may face enhanced competition in CA on the part of the US and China within a short-term period. Such changes in the foreign policy situation require more drastic actions from Kremlin aimed at strengthening its influence in the region.
Military and Political Standpoint. According to the signed agreements, Russia has prolonged its military presence in Tajikistan for 30 years. Ministers of Defence signed a treaty replacing the previous one that came into force in May of 1993 and is going to terminate in 2014. Duration of the new treaty is 49 years.
The treaty is of great military and political importance since it stipulates that Russia will keep under control one of the largest exterritorial military groups in Central Asia. Firstly, this will allow Moscow to control security within the region after complete withdrawal of coalition’s military forces from Afghanistan. We believe that withdrawal of ISAF troops from Afghanistan will trigger rise of radical forces on the borders of Central Asian republics and will pose a threat to stability of these countries’ regimes. This process will be probably accompanied by increasing drug trafficking from this country. Therefore, Kremlin in its strategic model sees Tajikistan first of all as a border containing radical Islamic forces from the territory of Afghanistan. Secondly, 2013 will see presidential election in the country participation in which of the current president E.Rachmon may raise a question about legitimacy of the procedure and destabilize the situation in the country according to the “colour revolution” scenario. Thirdly, this will give Moscow a chance to achieve parity under conditions of probable deployment of American military bases on the territory of Uzbekistan.
Moreover, 201 Russian Military Base (RMB) and financial aid in the amount of USD 5 million will allow more effective prevention of drug trafficking towards Russia in which – as of today – some representatives of Tajikistan army and border troops are involved which is proved by recent event in Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAR). The same events showed that Tadjik authorities in fact have no control over about 45% of their territory, and there is a probability of another round of separatism and extremism in Gorno-Badakhshan. Back in 2010, confrontation tendencies here were enhanced after the breach of agreement between official Dushanbe and the groups controlling the Rasht Valley which the authorities failed to take under control. According to the operational report prepared by Da Vinci AG analytic group in February 2011, Tajikistan is the most vulnerable state in Central Asia for the implementation of “Arab spring” scenario. Therefore, Russian military presence will guarantee security to E.Rachmon’s regime and enhance stability of the regime and domestic policy situation in the country. This is also important considering the personal conflict between E.Rachmon and I.Karimov which, in our opinion, may turn into a military conflict in case of implementation of water and energy supply projects by Tajikistan which may cause water deficiency within the republic. Therefore, RMB 201 may influence the decision-making process in Uzbekistan regarding planning of acts of violence against Dushanbe.
All this strengthens RF’s position in the region, ensures stable implementation of integration projects for it, as well as enhances the role of CSTO as regional security organization.
Situation Forecast. We believe that Moscow’s medium-term tactics lies in the use of contradictions of Dushanbe for the purpose of strengthening its position in the region. Moscow will seek to keep influence on Tajikistan by means of providing military assistance, security guarantees and economic support in the form of liberalization of labour migration for Tadjiks and abolition of export duties on light oils. Plans to increase labour migration flow from Tajikistan aimed at reducing tension in this country caused by unemployment will probably be accompanied by tightening of migration policy in relation to migrant workers – including from Ukraine and Moldova. Introduction of new migration rules is quite advantageous for RF. 75% of migrants from Central Asia have families on their native land and send them money. Thus, by employing foreigners on its own territory Moscow reduces tension in Central Asian countries where male unemployment can stimulate growth of extremism. Moreover, 99% of them go to Russia seeking some earnings and do not plan on staying on its territory unlike representatives of European post-Soviet republics.
According to our estimations, Kremlin is interested in the creation of confrontation between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (and possibly Kyrgyzstan). For this purpose, Moscow takes measures to support implementation of infrastructure projects which pose threat to Uzbekistan’s security. It concerns construction of Rogun HPS and Kambar-Atin HPS-1. In case construction of dams on these two sites is completed Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will get an opportunity to regulate flows of trans-border rivers Naryn in Kirgizia and Vahksh in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, thus creating water deficiency there. Receiving control over water resources by means of investment projects with the participation of Russian companies RusHydro and RAO UES will allow Kremlin to get bargaining chips in the process of negotiations with Uzbekistan and offset its regional influence as a supplier of energy resources.
We suppose that there is quite little probability of implementation of this project by Moscow. Such implementation is rather risky considering the fact that the dam which is going to become the world’s largest is situated at the point of tectonic fault and high seismic activity. In view of the aforesaid, investments in the amount of about USD 3 billion managed by Russian companies are imposed to high financial and reputation risks and seem to be unreasoned from the economic point of view. However, results of V.Putin’s visit in October show that Russia for the first time got involved in Tadjik-Kyrgyz water-energy project in which it had been persistently staying neutral for several years. We believe that this is a part of a multi-move game in which Moscow provokes escalation of tension between Dushanbe and Tashkent and between Tashkent and Bishkek, and then will become mediator in the regulation process taking up issues of peaceful regulation of regional conflicts.
Moreover, as 2014 is approaching I.Karimov’s regime will seek foreign support and security guarantees on its southern borders. Despite the fact that the length of borders with Afghanistan for Uzbekistan is significantly less than for Tajikistan, infiltration of radical Islam into its territory, intrusion of armed troops into its territory from Afghanistan aimed at destabilization of the situation within the country and spread of influence of Uzbek sub-ethnic groups and clans of Afghanistan on Uzbekistan are quite likely. At the same time, Tashkent has no resources to maintain its positions on the southern border with Afghanistan and 100% of control over its own part of Ferghana Valley where chances are high that the activity will revive, nor to prevent revitalization of opposition forces. In view of the above, Moscow probably hopes that under such conditions Tashkent will not be able to show active resistance to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and will agree to trade-off alternatives of settling the issues, including within the framework of pro-Russian geopolitical projects.
However, we believe that the situation is not likely to take such turn. Moscow has 9-12 more months until the situation with the construction of hydro-energy sites brings Dushanbe to understanding of the fact that Kremlin uses it in its geopolitical strategy. There was a similar situation in the past when Russian companies refused to complete the construction of the very same Rogun HPS which caused cooling down of relations with Tajikistan. This may result in significant strengthening of China’s positions due to investment infusion in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and construction of transport communications in Ferghana Valley.
In our opinion, Russia’s policy in the region will result in the fact that Tashkent will use a manoeuvre aimed at imitation of return under Russia’s wing. In such case, Kremlin will face an issue of fulfilling obligations to Dushanbe because the strategic plan suggests that the importance of Uzbekistan for Kremlin is more significant. Such games will hardly bring a happy end to Moscow because weakness of national economies of most Central Asian countries facilitates growth of radicalism and reduction of stability, and variety of tribes and clans complicates consolidation of power and implementation of efficient domestic policy which allows to predict further development of the situation in some of them according to Libyan scenario. Moreover, RF uses contradictions of CA countries under conditions of non-conflict infiltration of PRC into this region. Therefore, Russia’s influence in the region may be significantly reduced in case of change of power in one of the countries: Uzbekistan or Tajikistan which will strengthen positions of China and the US.
Poverty Continues to Decline, but Pace of Poverty Reduction is Slowing in Central Asia
Although poverty rates in Central Asia continue to decline overall, the pace of poverty reduction is slowing, according to new data released by the World Bank. High levels of poverty remain in pockets of rural and remote areas, which also suffer from lack of employment opportunities, say new Poverty Outlooks for Central Asian countries, released ahead of International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on 17 October.
“The good news is that Central Asia continues to make progress towards eliminating poverty,” says Lilia Burunciuc, World Bank Country Director for Central Asia “However, poverty reduction is happening much less quickly than before. Rekindling inclusive growth should therefore be among the region’s most urgent priorities.”
Since the 2000s, all Central Asian countries have made significant progress in reducing poverty, but most of this progress occurred in the first few years of that decade. In the eight years from 2002 to 2009, the poverty rate dropped an average of seven percentage points per year in both Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic – down from nearly 70 percent to 25 percent in Tajikistan and to 20 percent in the Kyrgyz Republic. Since then, however, poverty rates have fallen much more slowly: by only one percentage point per year on average in Tajikistan (from 25 percent to a projected 13 percent in 2019), and by nearly zero in the Kyrgyz Republic, stalling at about 20 percent from 2009 through to today.
Poverty in Kazakhstan was already lower in the early 2000s and declined at a rate of four percentage points per year from 2002 to 2009, at which point the country had almost eliminated poverty, as measured by the low-middle-income indicator of $3.20 per day. However, when measured by the upper-middle-income indicator of $5.50 per day, the poverty rate in Kazakhstan reached its lowest point in 2013, at about 6 percent, and since then has remained stuck above 7 percent.
The slowing rate of poverty reduction in Central Asian countries reflects several economic challenges, as well as difficulties securing jobs with decent incomes for vulnerable groups of the population.
Youth and women in the region are most likely to struggle with unemployment or low incomes. In Uzbekistan, World Bank data shows that over 25 percent of women aged 15-24 were unemployed in 2018, compared to 13 percent of men in the same age group. In the Kyrgyz Republic, 15 percent of women aged 15-28 were unemployed at that time, compared to only 9 percent of men in the same age group.
Recently published poverty maps for Central Asian countries reveal that many of the remaining poverty hotspots in the region are in rural areas that lack close integration with urban growth centers. This is especially pertinent for parts of Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, where poverty rates are above 40 percent in the most remote districts.
The analysis also finds that the middle-class in Central Asia is almost entirely concentrated in and around a handful of big cities: Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Tashkent, and to a lesser extent, in Dushanbe and Bishkek. One of the main challenges faced by all countries in the region is ensuring that people are not excluded from these dynamic labor markets.
The World Bank recommends policies that provide greater employment opportunities for people, expanding the availability of affordable housing in growing and prosperous cities, encouraging faster wage growth, and supporting vulnerable groups so they can be more competitive in the labor market.
Eurasian Economic Union Might Expand
As the strained Russia-EU relations somewhat softened recently, and a rising cooperation is being seen over questions such as Ukraine and Moldova, Russia is on the economic offensive throughout the former Soviet space.
Valentina Matviyenko, a high ranking Russian official, announced recently that Uzbekistan had already decided to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and that final preparations are taking place in that regard.
Uzbekistan is arguably the most important country in Central Asia as it is the only state bordering all four “stans” (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan) of the region. From a purely geographic perspective, influence over Uzbekistan would increase Russian clout throughout the entire Central Asia.
Uzbekistan’s importance is also maximized by the fact that it possesses a pretty competitive industrial sector capable of producing various machinery and other vital products.
Uzbekistan’s membership of the EEU will also be a win for Moscow because of the latter’s quiet competition with the Chinese over the region, specifically in the economic and slightly military realms. As China rolls out its flagship Belt and Road Initiative, Uzbekistan is of primary importance to Beijing.
True, membership of the EEU will not mean cutting off trade between Uzbekistan and China, and the latter will certainly continue investing in the Uzbek economy. However, though no open animosity exists between Beijing and Moscow on Central Asia issues, Tashkent’s choice to become a member of the EEU will serve as a certain limit to rising Chinese ambitions.
On the other crucial front of Russia’s borderlands, Moscow is seemingly close to reaching a higher level of integration with Belarus (a country already an EEU member) by 2022. Though Minsk has officially refuted Russian plans on economic integration, it is clear that pressure from Moscow is indeed mounting and it is becoming increasingly difficult for Belarus to withstand various Russian moves.
Both events, which, at least according to the open source material, are likely to take place in the near future, will strengthen Russia’s position in Eurasia. It will also increase the EEU’s position and make the bloc economically more attractive for non-member former Soviet states such as Azerbaijan and potentially for Middle East powers (Iran and Turkey).
Though the expansion is a good indicator of Russia’s fortunes, in the long run it shows the limit of the EEU and Moscow’s strength. Still without Ukraine, the EEU is a constrained market, solely dominated by Russia, both economically, militarily and in terms of population numbers. In fact, as I have written in several articles for GT, nowadays the expansion of Russian economic (i.e. geopolitical) interests in Belarus and Uzbekistan is logical, as avenues for Moscow’s active foreign policy are limited to Central Asia and Belarus. Elsewhere (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia), the Russian influence reached a certain limit, going beyond which would see Moscow needing to increase its military pressure in those countries.
Thus, Economic competition around Georgia and in wider Eurasia is intensifying, with large states increase their efforts to get smaller ones into their respective economic zones. All this is likely to build up geopolitical tensions in the super-continent.
Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today
Unjustified Hope of Iran’s Central Asia Policy
The Washington factor has been and remains, if not the main obstacle, then at least a deterrent to Iran’s strengthening in Central Asia over the past thirty years. The former Soviet Central Asian Muslim republics – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – collectively known as the “Five Stans”, is a scene of the big game and intense rivalry. In view of geopolitical and geo-economic conditions, these countries have experienced ups and downs in collaboration with Iran. Amid the background of the intensifying Iranian crisis, this article presents a brief analysis of the cooperation between Iran and Central Asian countries, whose people are regional neighbors and have close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities.
Iran’s “soft power” in Central Asia
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Iran was among the first countries to recognize the independence of the five Central Asian republics, intending to spread its influence through cultural, historical and religious commonalities. The establishment of the first diplomatic relations fell on Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was identified in Central Asia as a relatively moderate leader. He was well aware that after 80 years of communist influence, these “Stans” secular regimes would not accept any Islamic ideology. Therefore, in the late 1990s, his government sought to consolidate the foundations of cultural and historical ties as a tool of “soft power” of Iran’s Central Asia policy.
The main executive body for promoting Iranian “soft power” in the region has become the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), a parastatal agency that is subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This organization was considered Iran’s de facto public diplomacy organization and is under the control of the Supreme Leader’s office. By opening Iranian cultural centers in all Central Asian capitals, it has sought to institutionalize elements and patterns of its Persian language and culture in the region. Today, leading Central Asian faculties sufficiently promote Persian language courses that are supported by the Islamic Republic embassies.
In the light of the objectives of the present study, particularly Tajikistan case is seen as a tool of Iranian ‘soft power’ to create a “bridge” between Tehran and Central Asia and become a regional leader. These two ethnicities are considered relatively close, sharing the same Persian roots and constituting the basis of the “Great Persian World.”
Accordingly, with the financial support of Iran’s government, Research Projects such as the Tajik-Persian Culture Research Institute, the “Alhoda” bookstores and “Payvand” magazine have also had an important role in the regional influence. In accordance with the agreement on cooperation in the field of higher education, Tehran funded Tajik students to study at Iranian universities, especially in the modern Persian language and literature. In addition, in 2009, the Iranian state-run Persian News Agency opened its first office in Dushanbe. Correspondingly, Iran was able to represent itself as the main defender and provider of Persian heritage to the Tajik nation.
Additionally, Iran has solidly invested in the Tajik economy, ranking itself as the second foreign investor after China. This was particularly seen during the rule of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who due to the growing confrontation with the West, preferred cooperation with the northern post-Soviet countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. His government funded the construction of the Anzob/Istiqlol tunnel through the Pamirs, and the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant. Alongside its economic support, the Tehran government has been trying to implement its own nuclear project and receiving political support from Tajikistan.
A single geographical territory in the past made these countries to have closer cultural, economic and political integration. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to use the national-cultural identity as a starting point for creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Its first joint summit was held in Dushanbe onJuly 2006, when they decided to establish a jointly-run Persian-language TV channel called “Navrooz-TV”. Also Ahmadinejad’s initiative, the three states established the Economic Council of the Persian-Speaking Union in March 2008.
The shift of political soft power is taking place at a time of intensified geopolitical uncertainty for Iran. Therefore, it is imperative to question whether Tehran’s ambitions to break out of international isolation was indeed successful. At first, the person spearheading this debate the most was none other than Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai, when the U.S. and NATO forces ensured country’s military, economic and financial stability of the country. Therefore keeping excessive close ties with Iran would damage its connections with powerful western partners. Secondly, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was negatively viewed at the new Persian Union as it has military and political leverage in Tajikistan. Consequently, Russia was firm in ensuring that Tehran would not strengthen its role in the region. Moreover, Iran’s activities in the Middle East, which caused inter-religious tensions between Sunni and Shia Islam, also affected the sentiments of Central Asian Muslims. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s historical rival, has taken active steps to reach out to Sunni Tajiks to bring them to its side. Over the past thirty years, the Gulf monarchy has spent billions of dollars on spreading radical Islam in the “Five Stans” and Iran’s retention.
Tit for tat
Relations between Tajikistan and Iran seriously deteriorated in 2015 as Tajik authorities accused Iran of supporting the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), attempting a coup d’état in the country and training Tajik Islamic militants in Iran. Iran incurred Tajikistan’s profound rage in December 2015, when Iran’s top leader Ali Khamenei received IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who left the country due to political persecution of the authorities. Dushanbe saw the hand of Iran in a terror act on July 2018, in Danghara where 4 foreign tourists were killed. Notwithstanding, Iran has diplomatically rejected the accusation, which deteriorated the relationship between the two Persian-speaking states.
The growth of anti-Iranian sentiment, accompanied by demonstrations in front of the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe, putting an end to Tehran’s initiative in creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations based on close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities. Due to the opposition of regional players and the absence of a broad Shia base, Iran failed to implement the project of the “Great Persia” in Central Asia, as it tries in the Middle East.
As a result of growing tensions, Iran significantly reduced investment in the Tajik economy and closed its economic and cultural offices in the north of Tajikistan. To hold on to its strong lineage of refuting sanctions, Tajikistan banned the import of Iranian food and goods “due to poor quality”, abolished a simplified way of obtaining visas for Iranians, and closed the branch of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee.
After reaching the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and partial withdrawal of the international sanctions, the Rouhani government sought to resume broken relations with the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and East Asia. The result of this policy was a significant reduction in Iran’s trade with all the countries of Central Asia since 2016. According to official data, trade between Tajikistan and Iran decreased substantially more than three times, while Iran’s trade with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan experienced a significant loss in numbers.
Iran’s nuclear agenda in the Central Asian multilateral cooperation
The “diplomatic quarrel” and a “trade war” between Tajikistan and Iran negatively influenced Tehran’s ambition to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Even though Iran filed a formal application for membership in 2008, Tajikistan twice vetoed its admission and promptly placed its harsh posture against Iran. At the last SCO summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on June 2019, Russia and China firmly supported Iran and stated that the other members, despite the U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA, should respect the nuclear deal. Now that the temperature of tension between Tehran and Washington has reached its highest point, as the SCO has become one of the international platforms for Iranian President Rouhani, who accused the US of “serious” threat to regional and global stability.
Governments of the “Five Stans” seek to maintain a middle position on the Iranian nuclear issue, affirming the right of Iran to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Today, as the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy has cornered Iran and its economy has been in terrible pain, the new president of Kazakhstan, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, called for the resolution of nuclear contradictions through diplomacy. Being the country’s top diplomat and Prime minister in the 90s, Tokayev played a key role in eliminating Kazakhstan’s nuclear arsenal, inherited from the USSR, and gaining the status of a non-nuclear power. In the past, Kazakhstan has repeatedly called Iran to follow its example.
In addition, Iran and the Central Asian countries also cooperate within the framework of the OIC, the ECO and the CICA, whose platform Iran uses to accuse “American imperialism” and defend its nuclear ambition.
The ups and downs of bilateral and multilateral cooperation of Iran with the “Five Stans” over the past quarter-century have shown that Tehran failed to establish its zone of influence in Central Asia, in the same way as it has created Iranian proxy Shia groups in the Middle East. The main reason for Tehran’s inability to prove itself as an attractive economic partner in Central Asia is the US long-term strategy to contain Iran through economic sanctions and its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program. Therefore, despite the advantages of geographic, religious and cultural commonalities, Iran remains unable to open a “window” to Central Asia in conditions of international isolation and emerge as a regional power.
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