Using Tajikistan for upper hand over Russia
December 23, 2011
After the blockade of Nato supply routes in Pakistan, the importance of alternative transit routes has increased for the United States. Furthermore, the vacation orders of Shamsi Airbase from the Government of Pakistan have also increased the need for setting up bases in other countries neighboring Afghanistan. In view of this situation, Central Asia has become the hub of ISAF and NATO activity, with countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan standing out as prime contenders to replace Pakistan’s status of a front line ally in the war against terror. According to the latest reports, the US wants to station its excess military equipment on Uzbek and Tajik bases.
From the recent negotiations between the US and Tajikistan it seems imminent that the former wants to gain an upper hand in the region by mobilizing the ex-Soviet states against Russia, and for its benefit in Afghanistan. This, on the one hand, can reduce Russian influence in the region, on the other it can help create an alternative transit route for the NATO forces and operations in Afghanistan. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s negotiations with Tajik President E. Rakhmon on 21st and 22nd of October also gave a strong indication about where the US strategy may be heading in the region.
Central Asia, for long, has been an attractive destination for the West, as it enjoys an important strategic location coupled with having rich natural resources. The current state of affairs and government structure also favour Washington’s policies as religion’s influence in state affairs is minimal.
The recent shift in the US strategy to use Tajikistan in marginalizing the Russian influence came to notice when multiple planes owned by Russian investment group, Rolkan, were grounded in Afghanistan as well as Tajikistan. The planes were impounded on minimal charges and in one of the cases, the convicts, a Russian and an Estonian Pilot, got eight years of imprisonment in Tajikistan for illegally crossing the country and smuggling a disassembled jet engine, though released afterwards by Tajik courts. The plane was grounded in March when it was reported to the Tajik authorities form the Afghan counterparts that a Russian plane, having illegally left Afghanistan, would pass through Tajikistan and must be grounded. The move was also supposedly linked to have been made on the influence of US as a stunt to fuel a diplomatic spat between Moscow and Dushanbe.
The detained and sentenced pilots were working for a US foods company named Supreme Foods, and reports suggest that their flight was carrying routine goods when travelling over Tajikistan. The maneuvered situation and case made against the pilots clearly indicated Tajik inclination towards the US and thus had a severe impact on the already deteriorating relations between Moscow and Dushanbe.
Another incident of the same nature occurred when an AN-72 plane belonging to Rolkan group, Russia, was grounded in Afghanistan, on 17th November, as the Afghan authorities claimed that the plane didn’t have license to fly over Afghanistan.
In the wake of these incidents and sentencing of the Russian pilot, Kremlin made a serious response. Many of the workers belonging to Tajikistan were detained back to their country and many were not allowed to enter Russia on the border. Russia serves as a huge labor market for Tajik workers who seek work due to poor employment conditions in their country. As a result of this pressure, the courts in Tajikistan freed both the pilots on 22nd November. The whole case was handled by the State Committee of National Security (GKNB) and recommended criminal prosecution for the pilots. The Tajik Minister for Foreign Affairs Homrokhon Zarifi also took part in the pilot case and instead of diffusing the matter escalated the tension by accusing the Russian side of the incident. Zarifi is also known to be a close confidant of Washington.
Rakhmon is also considered to be a strong future presidential candidate because of his US affiliations and it must be of no surprise if he had a strong role and say in the pilot saga for pleasing Washington. The US is also seemingly pressurizing Dushanbe for not extending the lease of Russian Airbase in the country that goes against the US interest in the region. If such a scenario comes forward, Russia may get a serious blow in its competition for influence with the US. Many Tajik political analysts are also of the view that Tajik officials are obliging all US demands as a fear of a similar movement as that of the Arab Spring in the country.
The recent diplomatic spats with Moscow were not taken well by Tajik people, analysts as well as the opposition leaders. All these sections of the Tajik society were of the view that the current Tajik government came in power on the influence of Russia whereas it also provides employment to a huge chunk of Tajik labor force which in turn brings up to 40% GDP to the country. It is also noteworthy that increasing influence of the US may energize and mobilize the radical Islamists leading to terrorist activities in the country. Befriending US may favor the Tajik government but not the people. Muhhidin Kabiri, leader of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, was of the view that friendship with the US may lead to a civil war in the country as a fear of which the president has to check the pro-US actions by the government.
Realizing the importance of the region, Washington is playing all its cards to ensure a long term influence in Asia. This influence involves active participation by key Central Asian actors such as Tajikistan, but for Tajikistan the major dilemma currently on hand is to choose between a mighty US or an economy and people-friendly Russia.