As Tajikistan played Moscow and Washington off each other for aid and friendship, US diplomats witnessed an insecure, corrupt autocracy stagger -- sometimes quite literally -- from one superpower to the other, according to wikileaked cables from the US Embassy in Dushanbe. The newly released dispatches, which span five years, describe Tajikistan’s leaders as more interested in personal gain than long-term development. When friendship with Moscow isn’t profitable, for instance, officials eagerly aid NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan.
In cables dated November and December 2005 and available on The Guardian website, then-Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland describes ascending Russian influence and increasing suspicion of American non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
“Thanks to Russian pressure, Tajikistan is embarking on a potentially confrontational approach that will slow development and encourage the Tajikistan Government's worst instincts,” Hoagland writes.
The Russian intelligence services thoroughly dominate Tajikistan's Ministry of Security. Ministry of Security views often take precedence in the Presidential Apparat and key ministries like Justice that is responsible for registering foreign NGOs and Tajik media outlets and political parties.
Following the so-called “pro-Western color revolutions” elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the Russians told President Emomali Rahmon (né Rahmonov) that American NGOs are “covert tools whose job is to prepare the local populations to overthrow ‘legal governments’ in the CIS.” Sweetening the picture, the Kremlin offered substantial investment packages for Rahmon’s “pet interests.”
Because Russia is militarily weak, it uses other means to assert its authority in Tajikistan. After years of inconclusive negotiation, Russia and Tajikistan rapidly reached agreement in 2004 (following Tbilisi's Rose Revolution) to forgive Tajikistan's bilateral debt and to establish the legal basis for the Russian military base in perpetuity.[…] To set the hook in Rahmonov's jaw, [Russia’s then-President Vladimir] Putin also announced major investments, variously described as $1.2 billion to over $3 billion, in Rahmonov's pet interests -- hydropower (primarily Sangtuda-1 and secondarily Rogun) and the old Soviet aluminum tolling industry. Until then, no nation, especially in the West, took Rahmonov's pleas seriously to invest in these Soviet-era behemoths.
Rahmon is still waiting for Rogun, which helps explain why, by 2010, he was interested in more cooperation with the United States.
But back in 2006, Russian military guests used a dinner hosted by Ambassador Tracey Jacobson to “send a clear message that cooperation will not extend beyond a shared shot of vodka (or two, or a dozen).” Several Russian officials pulled out of the dinner at the last minute. Jacobson concluded that the boorish Colonel Alexei Zavizyan was tasked with making sure she understood the Russians “do not consider us friends here in Tajikistan and will make it difficult to cooperate on issues of mutual concern.”
Zavizyan chastised the Ambassador's household staff and made a series of sexist remarks. The dinner ended abruptly after he sunk to uttering ugly racist slurs about African Americans.
Rahmon is not always Moscow’s pawn, however, as he demonstrated by dropping the -ov from his name and demoting the status of the Russian language in Tajikistan.
Until 2005, Russian border troops, part of the Russian Federation’s KGB successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), manned Tajikistan’s porous, 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan.
In a lengthy December 2005 meeting, Rahmon tells Hoagland that he forced out the Russians because, with orders from Putin, they “were plotting with former Presidential Guards Commander Gaffor Mirzoyev to overthrow him.” Hoagland realizes Rahmon may be giving him a load of spin, but writes that Rahmon accused the Russians of drug trafficking. (That is ironic since Rahmon, in another cable, protects a relative caught trafficking narcotics by firing an effective officer from the State Anti-Narcotics Agency.)
"This constant propaganda in the Russian media about how Tajikistan is failing to control its borders now that the Russians have left -- you know where that comes from? From the Russian generals who want to come back here with their mafia buddies. Look what they got here -- they put in two-year tours, and then went back to Moscow and bought Mercedes 600s and elite apartments. You think they did that on their salaries? Why do you think the generals lined up in Moscow all the way across Red Square and paid enormous bribes to be assigned here -- just so they could do their patriotic duty?"
By the late 2000s, with Russia distracted by the global financial crisis, Tajikistan finds itself economically and politically isolated. A February 2010 cable shows Tajik officials are eager to cooperate with the US-led mission in Afghanistan:
They have indicated they would be happy for the U.S. establish [sic] an air base in Tajikistan. They see U.S. involvement in the region as a bulwark against Afghan instability, and as a cash cow they want a piece of.
Not only is cooperation with the West on Afghanistan a potential bounty, but Tajikistan has also found ways to play the terror card in its own interests.
After Tajik security forces killed a former minister suspected of working with Islamic militants last summer, defense officials “told us U.S. training enabled their security forces to win, and they are eager for more training.” Many suspect the mysterious events were a cover for Rahmon to eliminate potential rivals and had nothing to do with suspected Islamists. Similar operations continue, leading many (including this blog) to fear Rahmon could foment his own insurgency.