Tajikistan, a landlocked Central Asian country of 8 million people, receives few mentions in Western media outlets. Yet a cursory tour of the country makes it clear that it has become a battleground for outside powers. Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and the US have all spent millions on development projects in Tajikistan, visibly reshaping the skyline of Dushanbe, as well as the surrounding countryside. The competition for influence makes Tajikistan a fascinating case study of great power politics at work – and reveals the differing foreign policy approaches of the five countries.
Iran was the first country to open an embassy in Tajikistan after the latter separated from the USSR in 1991. Since then, Iran has spent millions on infrastructure projects in Tajikistan, including roads, tunnels, and a $260 million hydroelectric plant. It has also built an Iranian Culture Center in Dushanbe. Iran’s advances are part of a larger strategy aimed at expanding its influence among the Persian-speaking people of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – the so-called “Persian axis.” While Tajiks have increasingly gravitated toward Persian civilizational identity since gaining independence, they remain wary of Iran’s political intrusions, and some view its relationship with members of Tajikistan’s Islamic opposition party with suspicion.
This rift has created a political opening for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which seek to counter the influence of their arch-rival Iran. Simultaneously seizing on and contributing to the rise of Sunni Islam in Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia has spent millions building madrasas throughout the country. Meanwhile, Qatar is funding the construction of Dushanbe’s Grand Mosque, which, when completed, will be the biggest mosque in Central Asia. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states’ advances have created a dilemma for the Tajik state, which welcomes the investment but fears the spread of Wahhabism in the country.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are not the only countries vying for control. Since 2001, the US and its partners have focused on training members of the Tajik national police, with the goal of protecting the porous 1,300-kilometer Tajik-Afghan border from drug trafficking and Taliban incursions. That the relationship between the US and Tajikistan mostly revolves around military matters is not lost on Tajiks. Several people I spoke to complained that the US has focused on Afghan security at the expense of Tajik development, and that its involvement in Tajikistan is based on political expediency.
By contrast, China has spent millions on infrastructure and development projects in Tajikistan as part of its One Road One Belt strategy. In 2015 alone, China invested $273 million in the country – nearly 60% of Tajikistan’s total foreign investment. As a result, China’s image has improved in recent years. Tajiks are increasingly learning Mandarin in schools (though English and Russian are still king) and finding employment with Chinese-owned factories and construction projects. While the Tajiks I spoke to certainly saw a political calculus in China’s actions, they described the relationship as mutually beneficial.
Among the major world powers, Tajikistan remains firmly in Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia provides little in the way of investment or aid. Yet nearly one in four Tajiks work abroad – most of them in Russia; given that as much as 50% of Tajikistan’s GDP comes from remittances, the economic connection between the countries is strong. Militarily, Russia is the biggest supplier of arms to Tajikistan and continues to maintain bases in the country. Yet at the heart of the bilateral relationship is a sense of shared history, with several Tajiks I spoke to expressing nostalgia for life under the Soviet Union.
Tajikistan’s dilemma is that of many developing countries dependent on foreign aid. Even as it welcomes the outside investment, it walks a fine line between great power rivals, careful not to show favoritism for fear of making enemies. As one Tajik I spoke to put it, “We have to eat without getting eaten.”
While Tajikistan does not wish to involve itself in a new Great Game, there may come a time when it is forced to pick a side. Tajikistan’s decision would speak volumes about its values. Is the country, at its core, defined by Persian identity or by Sunni Islam? Is it militarily oriented with NATO or Russia? Will it embrace a role in China’s rising economic order, or will it seek out an independent economic future?
By: Bardia Rahmani
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2017