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Russia losing hearts and minds in Tajikistan

22 aprile 2009

Soft power alla russa!

By Alexander Sodiqov (03/26/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On 24 February, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met with Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon to rebuild relations that recently deteriorated to their worst level in a decade. Putting aside their disagreements over water and energy issues in Central Asia, the two leaders went fishing and hunting at Medvedev’s residence in Zavidovo. Although there was almost no public information about the outcomes of the meeting, analysts suggest that it has reinforced Moscow’s control over Dushanbe.

Despite consolidating its sphere of influence in Tajikistan, Moscow should be alarmed by a widespread frustration that has lately aroused among ordinary Tajiks. Tajik political analyst Abdullo Rahnamo, quoted in the Asia Plus newspaper on 25 February, suggested that Russia’s aggressive pursuit of short-term economic and security interests in the region, often at the expense of the local needs of the population, has generated significant disappointment and resentment among traditionally pro-Russian Tajik citizens. According to the scholar, Moscow is increasingly losing the hearts and minds in Tajikistan.

The major reason for disappointment among Tajiks has been Moscow’s exclusive focus on its security partnership with Dushanbe at the expense of economic cooperation. The impoverished nation long expected that in exchange for a political alliance, Russia would invest part of its economic wealth in Tajikistan. However, despite the signing of a US$2 billion investment deal brokered by former president Vladimir Putin in 2005, Tajikistan has not yet received considerable Russian investments. The global economic slowdown has had a strong impact on Tajikistan through declining remittances and falling prices for its key exports, cotton and aluminum. The shrinking of key sources of income has by tradition led millions of Tajiks to look towards Moscow for assistance. However, according to Andrei Grozin, leading Central Asia expert at Moscow’s CIS Institute, quoted by the Ozodi radio on 2 March, Russian leaders appear reluctant to rescue Tajikistan from the economic impasse it finds itself in.

Another reason for frustration has been what most people in Tajikistan see as Moscow’s “siding” with Uzbekistan on water and energy issues in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has long opposed Tajikistan’s hydroelectric power development projects, arguing that the damming up of the Amu Darya River would threaten the supply of water to Uzbek cotton fields. Until 2008, Moscow openly supported hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan, repeatedly promising to complete the giant Soviet-planned Rogun hydroelectric power station (HEPS). However, as the relations between Moscow and Tashkent improved, Russia has altered its stance on water management in Central Asia in favor of Uzbekistan’s position. On January 23, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev announced that Moscow would not invest in hydroelectric power projects in the region unless they take into account the interests of “other Central Asian countries”. Moscow’s departure from its previous position has stirred widespread anger in Tajikistan. Confronted with severe restrictions in electricity provision or complete blackouts for the last several winters, ordinary Tajiks saw Moscow’s refusal to build the Rogun HPES as a betrayal of the “strategic partnership”.

Anti-Russian feelings among ordinary Tajiks are also increasingly triggered by Moscow’s inability or reluctance to address the problem of nationalist attacks on Tajik citizens in Russia. In recent years Russia experienced a dramatic increase in ethnic violence, primarily against Central Asian migrants. According to the Asia Plus news agency, more than 330 Tajik citizens died in Russia in 2008, at least 80 of them murdered in nationalist attacks. The murder in December 2008 of Salohiddin Azizov, a 20-year-old Tajik worker who had been stabbed and beheaded by an ultranationalist group in Moscow aroused widespread anger in Tajikistan. Following the incident, many Tajik newspapers blamed Russian authorities for tolerating and even encouraging ethnic hatred. Some papers carried pictures of president Medvedev and prime-minister Putin with a fascist swastika as a background.

Finally, there is growing resentment in Tajikistan against what many people see as an offensive image of Tajiks created by the Russian media. Beginning in 2007 Tajik officials, journalists and ordinary citizens have increasingly complained about the widely accessible and highly popular Russian television channel NTV. One of the channel’s most successful comedy shows, Nasha Russia (Our Russia), features two Tajik migrant workers, Ravshan and Jamshud, portraying them as very ignorant and uncivilized. “For Russians we are a nation of Ravshans and Jamshuds: no brains, no education and no self-esteem,” wrote Rajab Mirzi, chief editor of the Dushanbe-based newspaper Farazh, on 11 December 2008. “It means that they can make fun of us and butcher our labor migrants… Why are we still saying that Russia is our partner?”

In sum, there is widespread disillusionment and resentment of Russia among ordinary Tajiks caused mainly by Moscow’s short-sighted economic policies, its stance on water management issues in the region, an inability to stem the wave of ethnically motivated attacks on Tajik migrants, and an insulting media coverage. As a result, Tajik citizens increasingly call for the revision of a ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia and for closer ties with other powers including the United States, the European Union, China and Iran. Hence, if President Rahmon decides to depart from Tajikistan’s long-favoured pro-Russian foreign policy approach, he will meet broad support at home.

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