Foreign Policy Blogs

Tajikistanibashi? or, non-strategic realignment…

The President Formerly Known as RakhmonovLast week, President of Tajikistan Ehmomahli Rakhmonov announced that he wanted to return to the traditional (non-Slavic) spelling and pronunciation of his name.  Today, President Rakhmon dictated that the entire nation will follow him in this move.  New birth certificates, graduation papers, and other official documents will now be issued in non-Slavic spellings, whatever the preference of individuals. 

This extension of presidential preference over private considerations is very reminiscent of the late Turkmenistani President, Saparmurat Niyazov's rule.  Niyazov dictated what would be approved in the way of facial hair, dental work, educational curriculum, and relationships between husband and wife.  It heralds the beginning of a contingent dictatorship, where people are forced to change civic and private behavior mid-course due to the whims of its leader.  When Niyazov changed the names of towns, months, and days of the week to honor himself and his family, he sacrificed civic and social continuity and stability.  These changes also contributed to Turkmenistan's increased isolation from the rest of the world.

Though President Rakhmon has not yet descended into full  Tajikistanibashi mode, this ruling will have several short-term and medium-term effects on its own.  First of all, it creates an anti-Russian feeling in a state which has already lost considerable numbers of its ethnic Russian population through out-migration.  Second, it puts in jeopardy temporary migrants from Tajikistan in Slavic states, especially Russia, but also possibly Kazakhstan.  These migrants are already in some physical jeopardy in Russia, and retaliatory acts against them in the Russian Federation are sure to step up.  The loss to Tajikistan's remittance economy will be considerable.  According to a January, 2007 World Bank Report on the European and Central Asian economy remittances make up 12.5% of Tajikistan's GDP (look at figure 2.1).

Third, any financial aid from Russia will be put in jeopardy by this directive.  As already reported, Tajikistan was expecting to open a new office of the Eurasian Development Bank, 66% funded by Russia.  Russia has already given money to the World Food Program on Tajikistan's behalf just this month.  It is hard to believe that direct investment and foreign aid from China is going to make up any shortfall if Russia's policymakers take this amiss.

Though surrounded by Turkic peoples, Tajikistan has never been a part of “Turkestan”.  The Tajik language is related to Persian, and Tajikistan continues to seek out and find fellowship with their fellow Persians in Iran.  China is their near neighbor and perhaps their most important trading partner.  Yet even the most prosperous state needs more than one friend, and Tajikstan is far from prosperous. 

Mr. Rakhmon needs to balance his foreign policy between Russia and China even as he cements better relations with other states.  For examples, he can look toward two of his neighbors to see the consequences of domestic policy upon national diplomacy.  Kazakhstan's President Nazarbaev exhibits the diplomatic abilities needed to survive in Central Asia.  Whatever Mr. Nazarbaev's faults, he has managed to make Kazakhstan a good friend to the United States, the Russian Federation, China, and the European Union.  By treating with all, he has ensured Kazakhstan a place in the global economy.  By contrast, Turkmenistan, also rich in energy resources, has only one friend–Russia's Gazprom.  Mr. Rahmonov cannot count upon the international fidelity that comes with energy resources.  [See previous post: Tajikistan courts new investment].  Thus, his need to balance between competing powers is even more necessary.  Forcing a repudiation of Russian heritage is not conducive to such a balance.

This law contributes nothing to Tajikistan's stability and prospects.  It only caters to Presidential vanity, and it may signal the beginning of a new downward spiral for this challenged state.

Photo: Jamestown Foundation