Tajikistan seemed poised to move westward as President Imomali Rahmonov broke with Moscow on some issues and sought closer relations with the United States, which was welcomed by Washington.
But at a June meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Rahmonov made an abrupt shift. Contrary to previous statements, he said Russian border guards would remain in Tajikistan. In return for Moscow’s canceling some 300,000,000 dollars in Tajik debt, Russia would gain access to an advanced space monitoring station in Tajikistan and possibly a guarantee of a permanent military presence.
It turned out that Russia had more to offer than America, says Mehrdad Haghayeghi, professor of political science at Southwest Missouri State University, who frequently travels to the region. President Rahmonov felt he was not benefiting from the U.S. relationship:
"Once he realized that there has been a decline of financial aid to pre 9/11 level and once he saw that there has been a significant rise in the drug trade and a significant instability and a reconstitution of militant jihadi forces in Afghanistan, he realized that most of what he was hoping for is not going to materialize."
But President Putin held another club over Tajikistan. Some 600,000 Tajiks have migrated to Russia, from where they send back home 450,000,000 dollars a year, more than twice the size of the Tajik state budget. If Moscow decided to expel these newcomers, Tajikistan would be in serious trouble, says Professor Haghayeghi:
"Russia basically used this as a powerful bargaining chip to force Rahmonov to concede. Any change in the pattern of migration would have caused significant political instability for Rahmonov."
This does not mean a return to the Soviet Union, says Professor Haghayeghi. Today it is a different Moscow:
"At the time of the Soviets, we had all these republics tied to the center, but there was a powerful ideological force behind what the Soviet Union was doings. That ideological emphasis is gone. So the competition has basically transformed into economics and politics that are within what most great powers do today around the world." Russian businesses are part of Moscow’s new non-ideological expansionism, says Grant Smith, former U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan:
"Russia has never been able to have the kind of influence, say, that France had in its former empire after it withdrew because the French always maintained a very strong currency link and economic assistance. The Russians have not done that, but they do have the strength of the Russian companies, which have been visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan more lately than they have in the past."
Ambassador Smith adds that Russia can still do business with the United States in Central Asia. Both countries seek stability:
"I have always thought it was a mistake to look at the situation in the areas as competition between the United States and Russia. You need to look at issues, and on many issues these days actually we have convergent interests in the area, particularly dealing with terrorism and the remnants of terrorism in nearby Afghanistan."
Alone among the nations of Central Asia, Tajikistan has a coalition government with a participating Islamic party. That was the result of a brutal civil war that few Tajiks want to repeat. As a junior partner, however, the Islamic Renaissance Party has steadily lost ground to President Rahmonov, who like other Central Asian leaders, is impatient with opposition.
"This Islamic party and its leadership failed to deliver on the economic front, failed to deliver on the political front. So they are gradually fading away from the political scene. Obviously, there has to be some sort of an Islamic reaction to this fading away." Reaction has come in the form of a militant Islamic group outside the political structure, says Professor Haghayeghi. The government labels it criminal, but it expresses a growing popular discontent:
"You may begin to see a new generation of Muslim activists that are coming into play that are basically arguing that we have not realized what was promised to us in terms of greater input into the political process, greater economic prosperity. Those are the issues that may be utilized by this new wave of radical Islamists, not only in Tajikistan but elsewhere in Central Asia that we will perhaps witness in the next decade."
This will also pose a challenge to Russian interests in Tajikistan and other parts of Central Asia, says Professor Haghayeghi. Can political Moscow as opposed to ideological Moscow cope?