After 25 years of stagnation, India and Iran are beginning to make serious efforts in Central Asia
Tajikistan is the “land of Tajiks”—Tajiks likely being attributable to the name of a clan. But the term’s etymology, like the country, is difficult to trace: stuck in arguments over whether Turkic or Iranians were the original inhabitants of Central Asia. The landlocked country, home to around 9 million people, is the smallest in Central Asia, and covered in mountains. It is bordered by Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, China to the east.
Security and poverty are its two most pressing issues. On the border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan must worry about the spillover of conflict and increasing extremism among its Muslim population, a growing trend in its otherwise secular state. Tajikistan looks to the West and Russia for help shoring up its security. Coming out of a transition economy under the Soviet Union, the country is woefully underdeveloped. Nearly half its economy depends on remittances from Tajik workers abroad—mostly in Russia—and is highly vulnerable to external shocks. The rest of the economy is based on cotton and aluminum: though the country has no reserves of its own, is state-run Tajik Aluminium Company—TALCO—is one of the biggest producers in the region.
Tajikistan’s fractured present is grounded in its domination and switching between empires over the years. It was originally part of Mongol Empire, during which it was divided into northern and southern pieces. Indeed, traditional lands of the Tajik people includes both present-day Tajikistan and parts of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The north was incorporated into the Russian Empire, but the distance from Moscow and St. Petersburg, coupled with Russian reliance on regional clan leaders to maintain order, meant Tajiks felt little Russian influence.
Still, the country was tied closely enough to transition into the Soviet Union, admitted as part of the created Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). After the Soviet Union collapsed, Tajikistan declared independence in 1991. Rahmon Nabiyev, a communist leader, was elected president in the first democratic election, winning 57% of the vote. The country swiftly fell into civil war, when anti-government demonstrations flared into violence that lasted for five years, until 1997. The civil war was the result of various faction—mostly clan-based—fighting, supposedly backed by Iranian versus Russian interests. As a result of the decidedly anti-Russian mood, ethnic Russians fled; only 6% of the pre-civil war population stayed.
Despite civil war tension, Tajikistan has a close relationship with Russia: Russia is the second-most spoken language in Tajikistan, and Dushanbe relies on Moscow for many of is security guarantees, as well as an economic partner. Most Tajik workers abroad are based in Russia. Tajikistan is a member of the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia has a large military base outside Dushanbe; and Russia committed troops to secure the Tajik-Afghan border until summer 2005. The two countries have worked together to country drug smuggling and emerging Islamic extremism; though the narrative is perhaps more convenient for the governments of the two nations rather than the populations.
Aside from Russia, Tajikistan has a growing economic relationship with its neighbor to the east, China, to invest in infrastructure. China has pursued business ventures in gold mining and assisting Tajikistan’s oil and gas exploration. China’s investments have helped in rebuilding Tajikistan’s decaying infrastructure, but simultaneously saddled it with a debt burden that it might not be able to pay back, putting it at risk of becoming dominated by Beijing. Tajikistan is a member of China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Tajikistan’s other geopolitical relationships are structured around its proximity to the Middle East, especially Afghanistan, rather than its non-existent military prowess: the U.S. military engages in regular joint exercises in Tajikistan, French troops have been stationed in Dushanbe as part of the NATO presence in the region, and India spent $70 million to rebuild the Ayni Air base, an airport 9.3 miles (15 km) outside Dushanbe. Tajikistan is feeling the run off from mounting instability in the Middle East: it has witnessed the rise of Islamic extremism and attacks within its borders, culminating in the first the defection of Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, commander of special-purpose police unit (OMON) of the Interior Ministry, to ISIS, and capped off with the murder of four foreign tourists bicycling through Tajikistan in summer 2018, for which ISIS claimed responsibility.
The security situation along with the legacy of civil war has made Tajik people risk averse; they want stability, and are wary of promises or reform. This is evident in the country’s political setup: the current president, Emomali Rahmon, a former cotton farm boss, has been in power since he was elected in 1994. He has been re-elected three different times, overriding OSCE complaints that the election was unfair. In Tajikistan, power heavily concentrated in the executive. There are no illusions about a flourishing civil society or free media in Tajikistan’s: the media is not free, and though non-government media sources exist, they are under pressure from the government. Foreign websites and media outlets are heavily censored, and government hostilities, like targeted tax inspections on independent printing houses, have forced non-compliant sources to amend their message or fold. Like all authoritarian regimes, Tajikistan’s government will someday face the crisis of succession.
Tajikistan remains a negative example of the problems that have plagued the region in the transition away from socialism: poverty, ethnic conflict, extreme corruption, authoritarian politics, decay of state institutions. Isolated from the major transport corridors of the region, divided by mountain ranges that exacerbate political fragmentation, threatened by spillover of instability from Afghanistan—geography does not do favors to Tajikistan. Economically dependent on remittances and foreign aid, prospects for the poorest of all of the post-Soviet countries do not inspire optimism. But recent developments in the region are offering Tajikistan to alleviate some of its problems. Chinese investments create debt risks but also bring long-needed upgrades to Tajikistan’s infrastructure. The resumed construction of the Rogun dam promises to turn Tajikistan from an electricity importer to exporter. Until recently Tajikistan was trapped in a regional “cold war” with its neighbor Uzbekistan. After change of power in Uzbekistan, the rapprochement between the two countries has transformed the relationship from the most antagonistic bilateral relations in Central Asia to a constructive partnership. Previously closed border crossings have been opened, Uzbekistan’s use of economic bullying tactics stopped, flights resumed between Dushanbe and Tashkent, alleviating part of Tajikistan’s isolation. But ultimately, Tajikistan’s ability to benefit from the positive changes in the outside environment depend on domestic reforms.
|Country Population||8.7 million|
|Largest City (Population)||Dushanbe (780,000)|
|2nd Largest City (Population)||Khujand (170,000)|
|3rd Largest City (Population)||Qurghonteppa (100,000)|
|4th Largest City (Population)||Istaravshan (53,000)|
|5th Largest City (Population)||Konibodom (50,000)|
|President (Dates)||Emomali Rahmon (1994-Present)|
|Prime Minister (Dates)||Kokhir Rasulzoda (2013-Present)|
|Prime Minister||Kokhir Rasulzoda|
|Freedom House Score (1=Free, 7=Not Free)||6.5|
|Ruling Party||People's Democratic Party|
|Past Presidents (Dates)||Qahhor Makhamov (1990-1994)|
|Past Prime Ministers (Dates)||Oqil Oqilov (1999-2013)
Yahyo Azimov (1996-1999)
Jamshed Karimov (1994-1996)
Abdujalil Samadov (1993-1994)
Abdumalik Abdullajanov (1992-1993)
Akbar Mirzoyev (1992)
Izatullo Khayoyev (1991-1992)
|How Central Banker is Appointed||Appointed by President|
|Average Voter Turnout in Last 5 Elections
(% of Total Population)
|10 Major Import Partners
(% of Total Imports)
|Top Exports||Sanctioned by
(and Start Date)
(and Start Date)
|1. China (53%)
2. Russia (20%)
3. Kazakhstan (11%)
4. Turkey (4.6%)
5. Italy (1.5%)
6. Germany (1.3%)
7. Kyrgyzstan (0.67%)
8. UAE (0.67%)
9. Lithuania (0.65%)
10. India (0.60%)
|1. Kazakhstan (26%)
2. Turkey (20%)
3. Italy (9.9%)
4. Switzerland (9.7%)
5. Afghanistan (7.8%)
6. Algeria (6.8%)
10. Other Asia (2.4%)
|Largest Sources of FDI by Country||1. China
2. UK (British Virgin Islands)
|Largest Ethnic Groups
(% of Total Population)
(% of Total of Population)
|Sunni Islam (91%)
Shia Islam (7%)
Tajikistan is an authoritarian presidential republic, which has been ruled by Emomali Rahmon, a former collective farm chief and communist party apparatchik, since 1992. The devastating civil war of the 1990s has largely defined Tajik politics to this day. The war ended in a power sharing agreement, which guaranteed the opposition a representation in the government and the parliament. Rahmon has incrementally suppressed the opposition and narrowed political plurality to the point where Tajikistan is now a fully consolidated authoritarian regime.
Tajikistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991 after the failed coup attempt in Moscow. The head of the local communist party, Rahmon Nabiyev was elected as the country’s first president a couple of months later. The election was considered unfree and unfair by the opponents of the old communist elite. Protests spread through the country, and by May 1992 Tajikistan had descended into a full-blown civil war.
The main split between warring factions run along regional and clan lines. The central government drew its supports and members mainly from the capital Dushanbe and the western parts of the country. The United Tajik Opposition was a loosely organized coalition of nationalists, liberals and islamists. They controlled the central regions and the eastern regions near Afghanistan, where Islamist groups, which were fighting on the side of the opposition, found a safe haven in the areas controlled by the Northern Alliance. Just like the fractious opposition, the Nabiyev’s central government acted less as a state bureaucracy or a military force with a clear chain of command and more like a patchwork of warlords and different militias. Half a year into the civil war, Nabiyev was deposed in a coup d’etat, which propelled Emomali Rahmon to presidency.
The war raged on until 1997, killing between 20,000 and 100,000 people and displacing over a million from their homes. The previously large Russian minority along smaller ethnic and religious minorities, including the local Jewish community, fled the country in almost of its entirety. Eventually Emomali Rahmon’s forces, with the help of troops from other Central Asian states and Russia, prevailed. A UN-brokered peace agreement concluded the bloody civil war with a peace and power sharing agreement in 1997.
Unsurprisingly, in the present, the country’s power holders have focused on stability at any expense since. President Rahmon’s strategy gravitates toward consolidation of power and reducing any political opposition. In 2013, the presidential election had reasonably credible opposition parties, including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which is the country’s second-largest party, and the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan. The latter’s opposition candidate was forced out of race by Rahmon regime for supposedly lacking the sufficient number of signatures to be on the ballot. The lesson learnt by that 2013 election and the emergence and potential victory of opposition parties was to increase pressure on deviant groups. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, observers noted biased media, voting irregularities, political pressure, and the prosecution and conviction of an opposition leader.
The Rahmon regime, despite its overwhelming power, is facing pressure, mostly from the worsening economic situation in the country and the destabilization caused by Islamic extremism at the country’s borders, spilling into the country itself. The government is nervously eyeing the social and political instability that could come with another uptick in poverty as remittances from abroad fall. There is also concern that migrants who have lived abroad also might return home with a renewed sense of urgency, prompted by perspectives from abroad. Aware of this, and the threat of other foreign influences, the government in Dushanbe has invested efforts into eradicating western and non-Tajik soft power in the country. In a captivating example, the mayor of Dushanbe banned rock and rap music in the city’s buses, arguing that it is not representative of Tajik culture. But the government’s pressure on external influence extends to books, publications, and in the age of social media, certain media platforms.
Meanwhile, the government is trying to keep balance with the role of Islam in the country. While the IRPT is the only government-recognized Islamic party in Central Asia, it faces much of the scapegoating projected towards other Islamic groups in Central Asia—a catch-all for the nation’s ills. Labeled as an opposition party, they are treated as one, with Imams forced to vacate the party, and Islamist opposition printing pressing being closed due to “health violations”. At one point, the Tajik Supreme Court labeled the IRPT an “extremist and terrorist organization” and officially banned it. The party has had to removed any symbols of Islam, particularly foreign Islam influence. And, as in other Central Asian countries, the threat of Islamic extremist is used to in two ways: to justify strong-arming of authoritarianism and to squeeze out any rivals to Rahmon and his regime.
In Tajikistan, power in strongly, almost unilaterally, concentrated in the executive branch. Rahmon and his family control most important aspects of the Tajik economy, including retail chains, entertainment, transportation, finance, and media. The family is reported to be in control of TALCO, the Tajikistan Aluminum Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturing assets. Rahmon’s family members serve in high-profile, high-power positions in the Tajik government. Ironically, Rahmon’s son is head of the country’s anti-corruption agency. This allowed him—and his father through him—to target the family’s political opponents and economic rivals while securing the loyalty of security officials. It is also a potential long-term succession plan for when Rahmon is ready to step aside from power, assuring the continuation of his legacy and enrichment. As head of the executive, Rahmon and his family oversee most of the assets and business in Tajikistan. They also command absolutely loyalty from the legislature and the judiciary, who are powerless in the face of such a unilateral executive.
The legislative branch in Tajikistan is dominated by members loyal to Rahmon and his party. The parliament is bicameral, after a shift from a unicameral legislature in 1999. The first, lower, house is the Assembly of Representatives, the “Majlisi namoyandagon,” which includes 63 members, each elected to a five-year term, 22 elected by proportional representation and 41 though single-seat districts. The upper house is the National Assembly, the “Majlisi milli,” which has 33 members, 25 of which are elected to a five-year term by deputies of the local majlisi district and 8 of whom are appointed directly by the president.
To appear more pluralistic, Rahmon has created “opposition” party members to serve in parliament that are in actuality also loyal to president and his party. Their inclusion is a mere ploy. As noted, Tajikistan was greatly shaped by the experience of the violent civil war in the 1990s. The parliamentary election immediately following the civil war was in 1997. The next election was nearly a decade later, in 2005. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the IRPT and communist parties were not permitted to run for the legislature. As a result, both lost the two seats they held in the previous legislature. This move violated a power-sharing agreement that followed the civil war; namely, that 30% of government positions were to be allocated to opposition parties. But there was little concern about glossing over this outdated requirement. The legislature, completely beholden to the executive, was not going to contradict the decision. Neither party was in a position to claim otherwise. And the judiciary was not in a position to assert the requirement.
Like the legislature, the judicial system in Tajikistan is subservient to the executive branch and its agenda. Tajikistan’s judiciary has not changed much since Soviet times: the country has courts at the city, district, and national level. At the national level, the highest courts are the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, and the Supreme Economic Court. At the lower level, courts function to hear criminal and civil cases, and to hear appeals. Judges are appointed by the president. The president also appoints the procurator general. Each appointee is to be approved by the legislature, and serves for a five-year term.
In practice, the legislature will not contradict the president’s selection, and the judges and procurator general serve at the whim of the president, who can dismiss them at any time. The country’s legal system is mired in the power of the executive. Few Tajiks care to study law, as they will either become a toady of the system in a prosecutor position or be thrown into the hopeless situation as the defendant. Both attorneys and judges feel pressure from the executive and other clannish factions striving to run politics and business behind the scenes, which makes for a non-transparent and highly ineffective judicial system, in which the president and his interests are always put first.
Media, NGOs, and Opposition
As the country’s power in grounded in a strong executive seeking to eliminate threats to power, Tahmon’s regime fears threats to this stability. The media in Tajikistan is highly unfree, with most platforms either state-run or owned by one of Rahmon’s family members. The government in Dushanbe is fearful of outside influence, and villefies western NGOs and Islamic organizations alike. There is little civil society, but there is growing concern in the government about Tajiks returning from work abroad, and the unsavory effect they could have on civil discourse.
Rahmon is also highly fearful of Tajik citizens—especially businessmen—living and influencing opinion outside Tajikistan. Some of Tajikistan’s most powerful opposition personalities live outside Tajikistan. In one particularly public case, an exiled Tajik businessman Umarali Quvatov, a former business associate and leader of an opposition group, was shot dead in Istanbul in March 2015. The case was murky: it was uncertain whether he was killed by a government order or in commercial dispute, but ambiguity of the case is illuminating in its portrayal of the lack of political and economic transparency and stability in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan’s domestic sphere is shaped by the legacy of its violent civil war and the rise to power of the current president, Emomali Rahmon, through that conflict. It is further given shape by the extreme instability and poverty of the country. Citizens are focused on making it day-to-day, year-to-year, and do not have the time or interest to challenge the state. For his part, Rahmon has focused on keeping out threats to his power in any form while enriching himself and his family through the state’s coffers and assets. The other government structures, the legislature and the judiciary, exist to give the semblance of some plurality while serving the needs of the executive. There is no opposition or alternative sources through media or NGOs to speak of. Tajikistan is poor and remote, and outside countries are far more focused, perhaps, on salvaging the others that investing in a country where it seems so little can be done to reverse the status quo. This leaves Tajikistan at a severe disadvantage. The country is still many steps away from transition to a democracy or rule of law, and it will take a long time to get there. Its people and opposition need the right motivation and vision to create that future, however far off it might be.
Tajikistan is not a powerful country. It is surrounded by a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape about which it can do little. The combined effect of the ongoing warfare in nearby Afghanistan shapes the political and social dynamics of the Central Asian country. Within its sphere are three of the biggest influencers of international politics, China, Russia, and Iran, as well as Afghanistan, a perpetual flashpoint in global affairs. As a result of this placement, the country is plagued by security issues, internal and external.
The poorest of all post-Soviet countries, the small and mountainous Tajikistan does not boast mentionable power projection capabilities. Its foreign relations are dominated by the management of domestic issues like political instability and poverty. Devastated by the brutal civil war in the 1990s, Tajikistan remains dependent on foreign aid organizations that have played a central role in reconstruction and providing public services.
Many of Tajikistan’s problems, from militant extremism to crime, are exacerbated by the porous 810 mile (1300 kilometer) border it shares with Afghanistan. The mountainous terrain remains poorly secured, and the flow of drugs, weapons, and fighters are the most pressing external threats to Tajikistan’s fragile stability. In a tragic example, in 2018, a group of western cyclists were killed in a terrorist attack on the road that follows the Panj River on the border of Afghanistan.
The physical Soviet legacy of roads, railways, and gas pipelines connects Tajikistan most closely with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan’s relationship with both has been strained by disputes over flexuous borders and the usage of common water and pasture resources in the fertile Ferghana valley, where intermixed and intertwined communities have only become separated by hard borders during the post-soviet history. The exclaves, that in the Soviet period were only administrative units, are now tension points where disputes over land usage and the exact demarcation lines occasionally result in standoffs between local security forces. Vorukh, the most populous of Tajikistan’s exclaves, is surrounded by Kyrgyzstan and a home to 23,000 Tajiks who often find their cattle pastures in the center of each country’s security politics.
Of outside powers, China and Russia are its most important partners. Russia guarded Tajikistan’s Afghan border until 2005 and maintains a military base in the country. Despite dominant in the security sphere, Russia has not been successful in its efforts to pressure Tajikistan in joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union in addition to the Collective Security Treaty Organization to which Tajikistan is a member.
Economically, China has replaced Russia as the most important outside power, investing heavily in Tajikistan’s crumbling infrastructure, saddling the poor country with potentially unsustainable levels of foreign debt. Increasing number of Tajik students are attending Chinese higher education institutions and Chinese-funded Confucius institutes.
Culturally Tajikistan’s closest ties are with Iran and Afghanistan with whom it shares a common Persian heritage and language. But despite the shared cultural legacies, the secular Tajikistan is wary of the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has received banned Islamic parties from Tajikistan on official visits.
Many of Tajikistan’s geopolitical calculations can be cast through its lengthy border with the volatile Afghanistan to the south—around 810 miles (1,300 kilometers) of mountains. Despite international attempts at securing the boundary between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the border remains woefully porous: drugs and other smuggled goods are sneaked across, aided by Afghans and Tajiks alike.
Multiple forces have invested military resources into the country to bat back these incursions: France stationed troops in Tajikistan, including at the Dushanbe Airport, as part of the NATO measures in Afghanistan. The United States has conducted joint training with the country to prepare and fight against Afghanistan and keep the government in Dushanbe solidly on the side of the Alliance. India invested $70 million to rebuild the Ayni Air base, around 9 miles (15 kilometers) outside Dushanbe, and the main base of the Tajik air force.
Relations between the two countries are hesitant, bounded by the instability in both. They share common histories and peoples: there are more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. They have signed on to several bilateral agreements, mostly for energy and infrastructure development, usually funded by international participants, like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, rather than the countries themselves. Dushanbe eyes Kabul cautiously, though: eager to get what it can, especially from international aid, but nervous of the overspill of violence and instability within its own borders.
Until the change of power in Uzbekistan in 2016, the relationship between the two countries was the worst between any two Central Asian states. The Uzbek strongman ruler Islam Karimov backed Tajikistan’s secular central government in the devastating civil war that devastated the country from 1992 until 1997. The “central government” was fractured into clans and warlords. Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev, the most powerful of the warlords, moved his troops in the late stage of the war into the capital Dushanbe and tried to oust the president Rahmon. Eventually defeated, Khuldaiberdiev fled to Uzbekistan, which had backed him all along, according to Tajikistan.
As a result of the political tensions, strict visa regimes were imposed, most border crossings closed, and the relations between the two countries descended into a “cold war.” Uzbekistan responded to Tajikistan’s plans to relaunch the construction of the Rogun dam with threats of war, because of fears that the dam would hurt Uzbekistan’s irrigation in the Ferghana valley.
After Karimov’s death in 2016, his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev reached out to Tajikistan to restart the relationship from a clean slate. Now Tajiks do not need a visa to visit Uzbekistan, a dozen border crossings were reopened, flights started between the countries’ capitals, and perhaps most important, Uzbekistan has shown a green light for the Rogun dam construction project, which resumed in 2017.
Another small and poor post-Soviet country, Kyrgyzstan shares many of the same problems from poverty to political violence. A weak state, Kyrgyzstan is not in a position to project power on its southern neighbor even if it fears the destabilizing effect of the flow of arms and drugs to its territory. Southern Kyrgyzstan and Northern Tajikistan are both located in the Ferghana valley. The intermixed communities were rather arbitrarily divided into separate states by the Soviet mappers. What were then internal, administrative borders of the Soviet Union are now flexuous borders and exclaves.
The most contested is the Vorukh exclave, home to over 23,000 people, which belongs to Tajikistan but is surrounded by Kyrgyzstan, and has been scene to riots. Both countries argue over the exact location of the demarcation line around the small town, occasionally bringing their security services to a standoff. Ethnic groups of each reside in the adjacent country—with ethnic Tajiks in Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz in Tajikistan. This has led to a history of tensions and ethnic cleanses alongside the border issues.
Competition for resources also extends to water ownership and use. Relations certainly are not cozy between the two, but they are also far from an adversarial relationship: both are so concerned with their own domestic instability and issues, there is a simply a lack of substance between the neighbors, and much room for improvement.
At the altitude of over 13000 feet (or 4 kilometers), in the isolated Kulma Pass, lies the only border crossing between China and Tajikistan. The mountainous borderlands and distance from either’s population centers have set limits to the extent of interactions along the 257-mile (414-kilometer) border, but in recent years China has emerged as the largest outside investor to the Tajik economy. Tajikistan is one of the first stops along China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s capital, which is hugely important to Tajikistan but marginally small to the eastern giant, are largely driven by China’s fears of spillover of political instability, which would affect its eastern provinces. Beijing reasons that if the countries along its border are better developed, there’s less instability and hence fewer risks to China.
There is a great deal of trade between the two, with China supplying Tajikistan with many of its daily consumer goods. Dushanbe was one of the original group of five signatories to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, bringing it into the fold of political and economic security, and furthering its military ties in the community. China is also a counterweight to Russian influence, an alternative economic, military, and cultural partner Dushanbe can use to hedge its bets as the regional landscape develops. A large number of Tajik students study in China, and Chinese has be an increasingly popular language, furthered by the political and economic ties.
Nearly half of Tajikistan’s total GDP is dependent on remittances, sent mostly by migrant workers in Russia. Higher wages and better employment opportunities offer the impoverished Tajikistan a lot needed access to foreign currency, but Russia has sought to use Tajikistan’s economic dependence to advance its political interests. To get Tajikistan to join the Eurasian Economic Union, Russian authorities have applied more restrictive measures against the Tajik migrant workers than against workers from the EEU member states, who benefit from the freedom of movement clauses similar to those of the EU. Exposed to volatility of the Russian markets, the downturn in the Russian economy after 2014 resulted in the return of many migrant workers back to Tajikistan.
Accustomed to higher living standards in Russia than in Tajikistan, the central government has feared that groups of idle young pose a security threat as a recruitment pool for terrorist groups. Radical groups operating in Afghanistan, e.g. Taliban and ISIS, have successfully recruited fighters in Tajikistan, most embarrassingly the head of the country’s interior ministry’s special forces. To counter the threat of spillover of political instability from Afghanistan, Russia maintains a military base in Tajikistan. Tajikistan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which gives it access to Russian arms markets on discount price and intelligence sharing.
Tajikistan and Iran share a common Persian heritage. Even though written with the cyrillic alphabet and despite vocabulary differences, the Tajik language is undestable to most farsi speakers in Afghanistan and Iran. The post-soviet period has seen a revival in the interest of the Persian culture, and Iran’s push to re-establish close ties. Iran was the first foreign country to acknowledge Tajikistan’s independence and to establish an embassy in Dushanbe. Iranian funded culture centers have promoted deeper ties in the area of the former Persian empire, which Iranians sometimes view as “Greater Iran”. But the political incompatibility of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Tajikistan’s strict secularism has set limits to the extent of the relationship. Currently the relations are at a low point after, in 2015, Iran hosted the exiled leader of Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party at an official conference, where he met Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Iran continues to eye on Tajikistan to expand its influence, but as long as Rahmon is in power, it is likely that Tajikistan will continue to view Tehran with fear and suspicion.
The United States
American presence in Tajikistan has revolved around development aid projects and securing the border with Tajikistan. During the war in Afghanistan, the United States supported the construction of four new bridges between Tajikistan and Afghanistan to increase economic opportunities and to strengthen the supply routes to Northern Afghanistan. Tajikistan’s close ties with Moscow have prevented the establishment of American military bases in the country, but the United States has trained and equipped the Tajik border guards to better combat drug trade. But critics have argued that instead of reducing drug trafficking, the better equipment has enabled the corrupt officials to better extract rent from smugglers and even transport drugs across the country.
Tajikistan is the poorest and most unstable of the Central Asian countries. The spillover instability from the Afghan conflict and Islamic extremism seeps in through porous border. The country has little infrastructure uniting the country, further putting it at a disadvantage. It is also the closest to a mafia state in the region, with drug trade, trafficking of illegal goods, and rampant corruption among leaders and law enforcement. With such deep-set domestic issues, Tajikistan finds it hard to posture itself as any sort of international actor. Instead, the country has focused more on keeping instability at bay—or, sadly, prospering off of it—and maintaining good relations with aid donors to prop up its sagging services and infrastructure.
Tajikistan is the poorest among former Soviet republics, with a fragile GDP of $6.9 billion, the per capita GDP estimated at $3,100. It is still a transition economy, coming out of the command-and-control heritage of the Soviet Union. The authoritarian political situation has led to economic mismanagement that has done Tajikistan’s economy no favors. Its corruption, lack of transparency, and insufficient economic reforms resulted in a poor investment climate, sluggish business development, and a flourishing black market. Tajikistan’s economy is small but growing, but real GDP growth did slow in 2017. The economy has been built on the back of foreign money, both in the form of remittances from Tajiks working abroad and foreign investment in the economy.
Dushanbe is in a tough spot. Without many resources, it realizes that the country needs foreign money for projects, but the transparency and corruption is so abysmal that it is difficult to attract the needed funds. But this also makes Tajikistan a place of great potential: it is a blank slate to be crafted by those willing to take on the risk. Tajikistan joined the WTO in 2013—a bright spot for those looking to do business in the region. The country’s GDP is projected to grow gradually over the next few years, with projections around 6.1% in 2019.
Poverty, too, is expected to gradually decline. But the vast majority of Tajikistan’s citizens are still far from the leisurely middle class. Some estimates have 50% of Tajik citizens living below the poverty line. Unemployment is rampant: official figures claim it is only 2.5%, but it is more likely around 10%. Many Tajik citizens, unable to find work at home, work abroad in Russia or Kazakhstan. The Tajik economy is one of the world’s most dependent on remittances, comprising between 35% to 50% of the GDP.
This makes the Tajik market particularly vulnerable to market shocks such as when the labor market demand in Russia or Kazakhstan contracts, or when other closely connected countries face economic issues at home. As the Russian and Kazakh economies struggle, fewer migrant workers are needed. Letting them go hurts the purchasing power of poorer Tajiks, many who have relied upon remittances to struggle out of poverty over the past two decades. It also weakens the Tajik currency. In 2015, the National Bank of Tajikistan was spending between $1.5 and $3 million a day from the country’s reserves to prop up the currency as it sank under the slowed flow of remittances. In addition, it banned private currency exchanges—both moves had the effect of encouraging dollar exchanging, especially on the black market, and inflation. The failure of remittances is also a social and political problem for Tajikistan: as Tajiks accustomed to living and working abroad return home to Tajikistan and the lifestyle that entails, it is a potential flash point for resentment towards the corrupt system and government.
For Russia, too, it is a political point, but more as a torque to bring Dushanbe to heel with Moscow’s pivot. Russia has recently adopted a more difficult system of regulations targeting migrant workers in Russia—supposedly those countries that are not part of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to strongarm hesitant leaders, like the government in Dushanbe, into joining the bloc. It has led to other benefits, as well. Russia has threatened to expel Tajik migrant workers when Tajikistan’s government undertakes policy that Moscow disapproves of; faced with a disgruntled returning migrant class, the Tajik government predictably caves to Moscow’s wishes.
As the market struggles, other Tajiks engage—temporarily or permanently—in the black market in Tajikistan smuggling drugs and other goods. The market is sizable, and therefore a tempting choice for un- and underemployed Tajiks to make ends meet for their families, but it can suck people in for the long term, and leads to political and social volatility. The country has little arable land, which has led to chronic food insecurity. It must import most of the goods it uses.
Structure of economy and key markets
There are several issues Tajikistan is fighting to right itself economically is domestic instability, poor transparency in the business climate, the the problem of state-owned businesses. If not accounted for, the country’s mounting public debt, about 50% of its GDP, could push financial hardship and halt many of Dushanbe’s ambitions. But if these problems are offset, the country has a lot of opportunity for growth and development, if taken on by the right investors and nurtured by the international community. Its hydropower potential is sizable. Tajikistan houses the Vakhsh and Panj rivers, both of which are promising.
In 2016, Dushanbe pursued expansion of its energy sector through foreign-financed development of energy sector. Tajikistan borrowed a great deal to undertake the projects, working with Eurobond money and an Italian firm to construct the Roghun Dam. The Roghun Dam is Tajikistan’s second hydro project, it would join the Soviet-era Nurek Dam, one of the highest man-made dams in the world, in providing power and irrigation for Tajikistan and the surrounding community. If completed, the government envisions using the Roghun Dam to supply the energy for all of Tajikistan and selloff for extra. There are pitfalls, however, as construction of the dam has exacerbated already bad relations with Uzbekistan during Uzbek President Karimov’s regime. Uzbekistan argued that the runoff from the dam would ruin Uzbekistan's lucrative cotton industry—Karimov went so far as to mention that hydro dams could lead to war in Central Asia. But his successor, President Mirziyoyev, seeking to mend relations between the two countries, has been more accommodating to the project.
Tajikistan is also well vested in aluminium and other raw ores. The Tajiki Aluminium Company—TALCO—has one of the largest aluminum plants in Central Asia. It is a key aspect of Tajikistan’s manufacturing. Its ownership, though, is subject to scrutiny. It is run by the Tajik president, Rahmon, and his family, and critics have accused the company of being a private piggy bank for the government, with much of its assets ending up in a shell company in the British Virgin Islands. The plant is underperforming, and the global price of aluminium is not helping matters. The TALCO plant draws heavily on other Tajik resources, like water, without necessarily yielding the same dividends it once did. Still, with the legacy of the Soviet Union, manufacturing is an important aspect of the Tajik economy. Another key element is the cotton industry. Like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan cultivate its cotton industry—the raw product is exported, and Tajik cotton is used in the domestic textile industry. The country has the potential to build domestic production, but it is heavily reliant on outside money to make it work. But building up Tajikistan could result in both payoff and help stabilize the country against future shocks.
Because Tajikistan is still a transitioning economy and lacks natural resource wealth, unlike its regional neighbors, the country’s trade is asymmetrical to exports: in 2016, the country has a negative trade balance of $2.48 billion. Tajikistan’s exports are largely based on ores: raw aluminium, produced by the state-owned Tajik Aluminium Company (TALCO) accounts for 29% of exports, representing about $225 million; lead ore is 12%; gold is 9.5%; raw cotton is 8.4% and zinc ore accounts for 8.1%. Other ores and copper ore also make up a sizable part of the exports. The imports are varied: there is no trend. Refined petroleum is the top import, at 5.5%; the next most imported item is wheat, with 5.1%. Other imports are mostly consumer and day-to-day goods, such as clothing and vehicle parts.
Kazakhstan is the largest destination for Tajik goods, representing 26% of its export trade. Kazakhstan is followed by Turkey, with 20%, then Italy, with 9.9%, and Switzerland, with 9.7%, and Afghanistan, with 7.8%. Overall, the export trade is driven by regional partners. Though exports to Russia only accounts for 3.3%. China absolutely dominates the import market, representing 53% of all goods received into Tajikistan—mostly consumer goods. This is followed by Russia, with 20%; Kazakhstan and Turkey trail behind, with 11% and 4.6%. The largest trade partners are both regional ones and CIS countries. Tajikistan’s trade with the United States or EU is negligible—nearly non-existent.
Beijing is Dushanbe’s largest creditor, owning about 50% of Tajikistan’s debt; it is also one of the country’s biggest investors, particularly in oil and gas infrastructure and gold mining exploration. China has invested in the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, linking China to Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Of course, as with other countries in the region, China is not motivated by Tajikistan’s wellbeing alone: the country wants to stabilize its western border and help its economy by investing in the region. But Chinese investment does not necessarily help the day-to-day life for ordinary Tajiks. Chinese labor is at odds with Tajik labor.
Iran has close ties with Tajikistan culturally and linguistically, but the distance between the two countries and the economic sanctions have made it difficult to build any trade relationship. Still, the two have shared investment in consumer goods, hydropower and transportation infrastructure. Nonetheless, it would strengthen the ties if sanctions against Iran were removed.
Tajikistan’s economy is not particularly promising on its own. It needs foreign financing to function, or at least to lead its projects and prop up the necessary infrastructure. But as much as it needs external support, internal reform is essential to making Tajikistan's economy run smoothly. That sort of reform can come from within and from international pressure. While those in power continue to prosper from the setup, little will change. But if business deals become tougher and more exacting, or particularly lucrative opportunities are available, the government in Dushanbe might sit up a little straighter to listen. It is a fine balance of risk and reward, but bringing benefits to the Tajik economy can only result in more stability in the country and opening the economy up to the 21st century.
Culture & Society
Tajikistan feels somehow wild. It has been home to kingdoms of various peoples over the years. Conquered, settled, reconquered, sacked, and settled again: many empires have walked its soil. During World War II, it was a place to send exiled or resettled Germans. The country is mountainous, and a destination for hikers and cyclists in recent years. In the Central Asian region, it is unique for the strong strands of Persian culture running through its veins, where many of the others are Turkic.
The cultural centers of Bukhara and Samarkand—great Silk Road cities in modern Uzbekistan—are in fact Tajik. Most Tajiks live outside of Tajikistan, and the culture and heritage itself stretches far beyond the countries modern borders. The pride and ubiquity of this Persian identity is an important factor in the country’s culture. Ask citizens whether they are Tajik, whether in Tajikistan or another Central Asian country, and they will likely answer that they are Persian, rather than Tajik or that a Tajik is a type of Persian. Tajik culture comprises more than just the elements within its borders, part of a larger line going beyond what a visitor might see today.
The country has elements of both urban culture, as seen in the capital, Dushanbe, and rural highland kuhiston culture. But both are marked by strong ties to clans and allegiance to one’s family and region. There is also a deep sense of the importance of agriculture to the country’s advancement. In March, on the days in the west that mark the beginning of spring, the 21 and 22, the Tajiks celebrate Navruz, giving thanks for the cultivation of the land (it is no coincidence that this day falls on Nowruz, the Iranian new year). It is traditional to visit relatives or friends who are connected like family. Tajiks also throw out their old things, clean the house, and play special games for the occasion.
In rural areas, one can still see aspects of even pre-Islamic traditions, such as fire jumping and dancing around the fire. On other occasions, highland games are played. The two most infamous events are Gushtigiri and Buzkashi. Gushtigiri is the national sport of Tajikistan, a traditional form of wrestling. Buzkashi is a game played on horseback, much like the western style of polo, except with the carcass of a dead goat playing the role of the ball. The two sports have gained popularity over the past few years with the onset of the international nomadic games.
Tajikistan’s food shares many similarities to other countries in the region, such as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It also has aspects of the great empires that have settled on its soil, the Russian Empire and the Persian Empire of modern Iran. Tajik food was primarily developed from this Persian cuisine, and includes dried fruit, nuts, and halva. The national dish, like Uzbekistan, is plov. And Tajikistan, like other countries in the region, lays claim to being the origin of plov. Tea is an important part of Tajik cuisine, and green tea is the country’s national drink.
Tajikistan’s location between the Middle East and Asia, but with influence from the Russian Empire and its own Muslim and Persian background, have shaped a fascinating country. The borders at times seem arbitrary and conflicting, as do the identities they contain—or lack. The country’s culture is best understood by taking stock of the urban center, Dushanbe, but also taking time to venture out into the country’s lesser towns.
Many of Tajikistan’s people live outside the city limits, subsiding on their own farms or professions. Unfortunately, the country is not well connected by rail or by highway, but trips out into the countryside can yield a great deal about the past and present lives of its people.
The one caveat for cultural exploration in Tajikistan is the element of danger. The country is one of the most volatile and dangerous in the region because of its location on porous and unstable borders. So, while it remains a country and culture worth discovering, travelers should exercise caution in taking on Tajikistan without local guidance.