Despite Russia's own financial difficulties, the Kremlin is throwing money around in Central Asia. First, Moscow succeeded in flipping Kyrgyzstan, securing Bishkek's agreement to terminate a base agreement with the United States in exchange for a $2.15 billion assistance package. Now, Russia is refocusing on Tajikistan, seemingly ready to use the lure of financial cooperation in order to prevent Dushanbe from growing too close to Washington.
After a prolonged period of acrimony in bilateral relations, Russia and Tajikistan look set to reaffirm a special relationship when Tajik President Imomali Rahmon makes a scheduled visit to Moscow on February 24. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The glue that most likely will be used to re-bind Dushanbe to Moscow is a renewed promise of Russian assistance to complete the Rogun Dam. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Also, ripping a page out of the Kyrgyz playbook, and turning the tables on Moscow somewhat, Rahmon is expected to request that the Kremlin pay rent for its military base in Tajikistan.
Rahmon's administration is currently struggling to keep the country's heavily listing economy from capsizing. After Russia and Uzbekistan struck deals in January that appeared to undermine Tajikistan's interests, Dushanbe embarked on a very public flirtation with the United States. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In mid-February, Tajik officials joined an American initiative to operate an overland northern supply network to support ongoing military operations in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some experts believed that Tajik leaders were also angling to host an American military facility, apparently hoping that an influx of US money would help rescue Dushanbe from its economic trouble. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Regardless of whether or not an American base idea was ever a realistic possibility, it seems that Russia is not taking chances. Knowing that Tajik leaders now see Rogun construction as the key to the country's economic survival, the Kremlin is giving serious thought to getting re-involved in the project.
Russia knows that if they do not offer Tajikistan investment in Rogun, some other countries will come in, said Muzaffar Olimov, director of the Sharq research center in Dushanbe. Russia is afraid of third parties taking part in this project because this will provide shares of income to someone else. Rogun is a strategic object. Hydropower energy is like oil and gas. If you control it, you will have economic and political influence here in Tajikistan.
Russia first struck a deal with Dushanbe on Rogun in 2004, with the Kremlin-connected entity Rusal undertaking a more than $2 billion commitment to complete the power station. The project, however, became ensnared in Central Asia's tangled politics: Uzbekistan steadfastly opposed Rogun, and Moscow, not wishing to offend Tashkent, stalled on dam construction. Finally, Tajik frustration with the delays reached the point where Rahmon's administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2007. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since then, Dushanbe's efforts to line up financing for the project have amounted to nothing, thus setting the stage for the possible revival of Russian-Tajik cooperation.
Moscow and Dushanbe have agreements signed regarding the Russian base operating in Tajikistan until 2014, where it also says that the Russian side will take active part in implementing the Rogun project, information department chief at the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Davlatali Nazriev, told EurasiaNet.
Currently, the estimated multi-billion-dollar project is proceeding at a snail's pace, constrained by the Tajik government's lack of capital. According to Nazriev, several million dollars in government funds were allocated for construction in 2008, with a few additional million in the pipeline for this year. An injection of Russian assistance would make the project feasible again.
While many experts in Dushanbe expect some sort of Rogun deal to come out of Rahmon's trip -- the second he is making to Moscow within the span of three weeks -- a few see the likelihood of disappointment.
Abdugani Mamadazimov, head of National Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan, does not think Rogun will figure significantly on the agenda. I don't think that Russians are still interested in the Rogun project, he said. For years we naïve people have been waiting for that money and investment.
It is much more likely, Mamadazimov suggested, that Moscow would consent to pay an annual fee for its base in Tajikistan. I know for sure that Rahmon will raise the rent issue for Russian bases, he said.
Russia's own economic troubles, especially its depressed construction sector, may be exerting influence over the Kremlin's dealings with Dushanbe. In the past, the fact that Russia was the principle destination of Tajik migrant laborers, whose remittances home were vital to Tajikistan's economic stability, gave the Kremlin considerable leverage over Dushanbe. But now, with jobs in Russia drying up, the migrant labor issue would seem to be less of a factor, although still an important one for bilateral relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The shifting job picture may be pressuring Russia to resort to other instruments of influence in its discussions with Dushanbe.
For this reason, Olimov thinks Russia will come up with some cash. Rahmon is not in a powerful enough position to press Moscow, but . . . they [Russian leaders] are afraid to lose this country. Tajikistan has a border with China and Afghanistan, it is near Pakistan and it is a very strategic location for Russia, he said. Russia has a very important military base here and . . . Russia knows it no longer can be here for free. Russia does not have such a big base anywhere else in Central Asia.
Mamadazimov agreed that Moscow would make some sort of gesture to restore the bilateral relationship. After [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev's visit to Tashkent in January, Tajiks don't trust Moscow much. There was a lot of propaganda in the [local] mass media directed to worsening the image of Russia, and it was very emotional. . . . We have trusted [the Russians] and have believed them for 17 years.
The failure to invest in Tajikistan is a betrayal from Russia's side, Mamadazimov added.
David Trilling is EurasiaNets Central Asia Coordinator.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.