Tajikistan’s Role in Central Asia: An Interview with John Heathershaw

Dr. John Heathershaw is currently Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Exeter’s Centre of Advanced International Studies. He received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and has held teaching or research positions at LSE, the American University in Central Asia, and King’s College London. Professor Heathershaw has conducted extensive research on Tajikistan as well as the other Central Asian republics, and is the current principal investigator of a research project titled Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia. He is the author of two books on Tajikistan, the most recent of which, The Transformation of Tajikistan (Routledge) was released in 2012.

SD: Disputes over non-demarcated areas along the border with Kyrgyzstan have become more and more common. Do you foresee this becoming an ongoing source of dissent between the two nations, or is this a fleeting problem that will soon be resolved?

Heathershaw: The disputes in the Isfara Valley between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are and will continue to be an ongoing source of tension between the states.  They should be seen as part of a pattern of disputes in the Ferghana Valley borderlands since the late-1990s which also involves Uzbekistan and occurs in other regions of the valley.  These are very complex issues of transborder economies, diminishing space for international and inter-ethnic ties, and state politics.  The research of Nick Megoran, Christine Bichsel and Madeleine Reeves has been particularly insightful in revealing the dynamics.  In particular, Madeleine Reeves’s book Border Work which was published this year and received honorable mention at the book awards of the Central Eurasian Studies Society is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand these issues.

My take on this, drawing on the work of my esteemed colleagues is as follows.  In the 1990s these were understood as “ethnic conflicts” somehow comparable to the violence which struck Osh and other parts of the Ferghana Valley in the late-Soviet period.   Conflict resolution funding flowed in on the false premise that these were essentially social, economic and ethnic disputes where state politics could be disregarded or, at least, left unaddressed.  However, the root of these problems was actually state politics, post-Soviet nationalism and the militarization of the borders which was begun by Uzbekistan in the 1990s.  This forced people apart and crystallized their identities.  Today, it looks like we have inter-ethnic disputes but these are the responsibilities of state who sought to enforce border control and assert sovereignty in a haphazard, nationalistic and often martial ways.  Thus the conflicts are not primordial or inevitable but modern and the consequences of specific choices of state leaders in a nation-building context.  That said, there have been some promising signs of negotiated compromise which has eased the current situation.  But this seems bound to be a recurrent problem.

SD: The recent announcement that the Islamic Development Bank will provide financing for the remainder of the much-heralded CASA-1000 hydroelectric transmission project breathed new life into what had been a floundering initiative. Do you believe this project will actually be completed? If so, what implications, if any, do you think this would have for the Tajik economy?

Heathershaw: There are obvious technical and security barriers to exporting electricity from Tajikistan to South Asia.  However, CASA-1000 has widespread international support and much money and political capital will be expended to encourage its success.  It does not require the building of Rogun to function but the drain on Tajikistan’s electricity production will have economic implications.  Evidently, a lot is determined by the situation in Afghanistan which is difficult to predict.  There are also problems internal to Tajikistan, such as the disastrous state of Barki Tojik, the national electricity supplier.  It’s not clear whether it can be reformed into an efficient supplier of affordable electricity for Tajiks and power with a premium for others.

If it does go ahead, this has huge economic implications.  Most of the revenue will doubtless go into the pockets of a few key families, as is true of all major industrial projects in Tajikistan.  But the bigger issue is whether an electricity industry which cannot keep the lights on in winter can actually export it without exacerbating this problem and thus damaging the economy even further.  It is the same basic problem as with the aluminum smelter where the enrichment of a small elite comes at the cost of a lack of power for everyone else.

Moreover, hydropower is notoriously vulnerable to both weather and climate change and its widespread adoption threatens agriculture and the ecosystem.  Increasing the capacity in the Tajik hydropower industry via the building of Rogun is notoriously controversial, especially with Tajikistan’s awkward neighbor Uzbekistan.

SD: Tajiks have been swayed to leave both Tajikistan and Russia to join extremist groups in the Middle East, and ISIL propaganda has been disseminated both in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Given rampant unemployment and general dissatisfaction within Tajik society, do you predict greater outflow of Tajik men leaving for the Middle East? What measures might the Tajik government take in order to impede the spread of extremist ideologies and encourage disenchanted Tajik men to remain in Tajikistan?

Heathershaw: This problem is often poorly understood.  Analysis by Christian Bleuer and Edward Lemon has been helpful however.  Drawing on this and my own previous research on political Islam in Tajikistan I would say a few things.  Firstly, Tajiks don’t appear to go to the Middle East directly from Tajikistan and they may not leave the country with that expressed intent. Those choices may be made in Russia whilst labor migrants as they are drawn into transnational Islamist communities.  Secondly, it is hard to know how many Tajiks join ISIL but it is probably proportionately fewer than from most European states including the UK.  ISIL is a global draw for a very small number of people who can be called extremists.  Thirdly, much of the analysis has misattributed the problem as one of general “Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization.” David Montgomery and I argue in a recent Chatham House paper that this is a myth where increasing piety and “Islamization” is linked to a general phenomenon of radicalization.  There is no such general process in Central Asia, which remains profoundly secularized in many ways. Fourthly, the Tajik government, also propagating this myth, has used the opportunity to crack down on religious education, Muslim worship and the legal Islamic Revival Party.  For a small minority, this crackdown may have radicalized them.  Fifthly, the very small number that has headed to the Middle East should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis in terms of this widespread crackdown on political Islam across the region.  For the Tajik government to understand this problem and take action would require a revolution in their thinking and practice.  Don’t hold your breath.  Western states concerned about radicalization need to wake up and realize that the militant secularist kleptocracies of Central Asia are more part of the problem than the solutions.

SD: The eventual withdrawal of the United States will leave room for regional heavyweights such as China and Russia to increase their influence throughout the region. Russia has expressed interest in developing Tajik deposits of natural gas, whereas the influence of China in both the economic and political scenes in Tajikistan has grown dramatically as part of Beijing’s New Silk Road policy. How do you predict the Tajik government will balance competing attempts to influence its political affairs, while enticing greater investment in its economy?

Heathershaw: This has been an ongoing regional issue since independence and the withdrawal of the United States only further accentuates dynamics that have been at play for a long time, including Russian ties based on the infrastructure and professional ties of the Soviet era, and vast Chinese investment since the early 2000s into extraction industries and transportation infrastructure.  The “multi-vector” balancing which Tajikistan and other Central Asian states have followed for years shifts with the evident decline of Western states in Central Asia.  Tajikistan may follow Kyrgyzstan into the Russian-sponsored customs union, which would have implications for the shuttle trade with China.  I would expect grey/black economies to expand.  China will tolerate all this as long as it can continue to extract resources from Central Asia, develop Xinjiang autonomous region and suppress its Uighur population through its security ties with Tajikistan and other states in the region.

SD: Iran seems to have made relations with Tajikistan an increasingly high priority. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently paid a visit to Tajikistan in order to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s annual summit, and top Iranian diplomats have stressed the importance of the Tajik-Iranian relationship. Is this merely a charm offensive, or is increasing cooperation, namely in areas such as railway infrastructure and energy, a viable possibility?

Heathershaw: Iran has invested in the past in hydropower and roads and has conducted charm offensives before based usually on a celebration of the countries shared Persian heritage.  There is no reason why piecemeal investments in infrastructure and energy may not take place again but do not expect the extent of investment we see from Russia and China.

SD: Following the end of Tajikistan’s Civil War in 1997, many were cautiously optimistic that Tajikistan would turn towards democracy. This optimism has since evaporated, due mainly to repeated human rights offenses and blatantly fraudulent election processes. Do you believe that these policies will change in the foreseeable future? What predictions would you make with respect to the nature of the Tajik political scene?

Heathershaw: There was never really any reason to believe that Tajikistan would democratize, and their remains none today.  As an academic I tend to feel that prediction is a fool’s errand.  Nevertheless, I will take a nibble at the bait.  Trends for continuity and for change can always be observed.  A slight downturn in labor migration after 2008 did not destabilize the country politically.  Research by Brent Hierman, Idil Tuncer-Kilavuz and Jesse Driscoll has revealed a good deal about how and why the political economy holds together in a basically neo-patrimonial system. The ability of the government to control the information and discursive environment and generate apathy and fatalism about the lack of political alternatives is genuinely impressive.  Basic repression also remains a key tool. Therefore, reform from within the Rahmon regime or the rise of a political opposition is difficult to imagine.  The Zayd Saidov case of 2013 is instructive.

The prospect for revolt is a more interesting question and is what the Tajik government worries about.  It is in political economy where we should look first for such signs.  Some close observers in the country feel that the pie is growing quickly enough and some of the families on the margins of the center of power are being increasingly excluded and may rebel.  But collective action against a regime is incredibly difficult and tends to take the catalyst of real political crisis often brought about by external shock, e.g. the civil war of the 1990s which was ignited by the fall of the USSR. The violence in Khorog and the Rasht valley has been limited and not spread beyond its localities.  Therefore, revolt is more likely than when I first started researching Tajikistan in the early-2000s, but unlikely for the foreseeable future.

SD: Rustam Emomali has been tapped to head the Tajik Customs Service. What will the transition look like, especially under the kind of regime that Emomali runs? Do you foresee any opposition to his succession strategy within the country?

Heathershaw: I think a lot depends on whether he turns out to be as successful decision-maker and arbiter of the factions as his father.  Thus far, he has shown himself to be a petulant young man more interested in sport, cars and other things beloved by the macho than politics.  But this is the traditional way of the sons of the elite.  Perhaps, he will mature.

It is by no means guaranteed that Rahmon is committed to a dynastic succession strategy himself.  Many people expected Gulnora Karimova to be chosen in Uzbekistan but her decline was swift and apparently related to her overseas and domestic corruption scandals and publicly ostentatious behavior.  Her inability to keep good relations with her family members and the key security people in Tashkent apparently led Karimov to dismiss and punish her.  There is no sign of such a thing happening with Rustam but I doubt his father’s support of him is unconditional.  He will have to show himself to be more of a Bashar Assad or an Ilham Aliev than a Karimova.  As a male, he obviously has an advantage in patriarchal Central Asia.

The other side of this is whether he will be accepted by the family and the circle of power including the key security people such as Yatimov and Khairulloev.  He seems to have won out in the family following the mystery of Rahmon’s brother-in-law Hasan Sadulloev, who may have been shot by Rustam in 2008.  Perhaps, the senior daughters accept him as rightful heir as the son, as long as their assets and interests are more-or-less retained.  I am not sure whether such acceptance will be easily forthcoming. I should add that much of the above is pretty wild speculation on Tajik court politics but it’s appropriate to end there as it is often all we are left with as observers of Tajik politics.

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