Will Tajikistan be able to sit between three chairs?

Recently Kyrgyz president’s visit to Dushanbe has ended. A slew of experts have voiced opinions that one of the issues of the talks might be EAEU, and the first visit of Sooronbek Jeenbekov to the republic itself as a president of neighboring country will speed up the decision of Tajik authorities regarding EAEU.

However, among 9 signed bilateral documents in Dushanbe there wasn’t a single one related to the issue of Tajikistan’s entrance into EAEU. This is completely natural, since for two neighboring countries the most important issue is solving of bilateral controversies, whether they are related to land seizure, water use, regulating of transfer through the border of the cheap Russian oil or contraband of weapons and drugs. Only after does the discussion of “higher matters” begins, including the ones related to Moscow’s expectations that the decision regarding Dushanbe’s accession into EAEU will be made this year.

It is important to remember that on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tajikistan, which took place in the February of 2017, similar loud statements were heard, but things are right where they were. Unfortunately, peculiarities of existing informational policy continue to develop in Russia a distorted perception of reality, generate inflated expectations and other derivatives, up to disappointments due to their non-fulfillment.

Thus, it was expected at the signed “Plan of cooperation between Batken region of Kyrgyz Republic and Sogdian region of Tajikistan on strengthening of neighbor relations and friendship for 2018-2020” will become the most important of 9 signed bilateral agreements. In other words, as the president of Kazakhstan Nazarbaev said since the first days of independence, “economy first, politics second”.

Nonetheless, the question of possible membership of Tajikistan in the EAEU is being discussed for many years and remains open. If you count the number of discussions on the matter, gathering of expert opinions, weighing of pros and cons and the volume of funds, spent on all these events, the spent time and money could probably be enough to be build multiple small hydro-electric stations and provide multiple villages, with population equal to the number of experts, participating in these discussions with power. The prolonging of decision from Tajikistani side, could probably be attributed to the real level of relations between the countries within EAEU, ambiguousness of which is not a secret to anyone.

Based on data of the research from Eurasian bank, published at the end of last year, around 69% of Tajikistan’s population supports its country joining the EAEU. Compared to 2012, (when 76% of population was in support of its country’s accession to the Eurasian integrated union). This indicator has somewhat fallen, however continues to be high. Still, the research especially highlights the fact that in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, where the level of support for EAEU remains quite high among all population groups, among respondents with higher education the good attitude towards the union is more common than among respondents with high-school education.

During the recent meeting with the head of Eurasian bank of development Andrey Belianinov. That took place on Jan 29th, the head of National bank of Tajikistan Jamshed Nurmahmadzoda tried to convince Moscow guest that the banking system in Tajikistan has entered the recovery stage. In 2017, as part of the program of professional development of specialists of central banks of participant states of EAEU a slew of events took place, including the one that took place in early Nov. 2017 – on the subject of formation of infrastructure of the microfinance market and loan cooperation.

The amount of analogous events allowed ministry of foreign affairs of Russia Sergei Lavrov to announce that the possibility of joining EAEU continues to be evaluated by Tajik authorities. The position of Russian minister continues to often be reaffirmed by Tajik authorities, who don’t get tired of saying that relevant agencies of Tajikistan fulfill the demands of the government about all-around analysis of joining the EAEU. For example, very recently (Jan 2018) deputy head of the Tajik customs service A. Tursunzod delivered such statement. And some Tajik politicians, including Rahmatilo Zoirov (leader of Social-democratic party RT), also started calling out pendency of this issue as “artificial prolonging” due to which Kazakhstan has lost no less than 6 bil. USD in the past two years.

However, don’t be deluded – such statements have been heard for over three years now, at least since 2014. Such state of affairs speaks mostly of the fact that Tajik authorities are showing interest in received aid from EABR, military and other help from Russia, are trying to get bettering of condition of access to Russian market of labor, etc. but continue to evade the answer regarding the date of accension.

There are many explanations for this, one of which is the desire to continue for as long as possible the appearance of conducting of multilateral foreign policy, and through that be able to balances between three powers (Russia, US and China). We are talking about three big economic directions of development of Central Asia region in general and Tajikistan in particular, that are being lobbied in the region by three global superpowers. Though to be fair, it is worth noting, each of the three global and regional projects proposed to Tajikistan, carry with it both positive and no-so-obvious benefits.

American “Big central Asia” plan assumed to make Afghanistan the center of the region, the recovery and creation of new infrastructure of which was essentially proposed to be carried using financial help of neighbor states (who themselves are experiencing a need in it) under supervision of USA. Currently, US is trying to fulfill this approach via India, which actively invests into Afghanistan. Since, the fall of 2014 American diplomats have been realizing their offer to Chinese colleagues to develop in regards to CA steps of coordination between American New Silk Way and Chinese Economic belt of Silk Way.

It must be said that there is a theoretical possibility of this happening, but again – Americans are planning to manage investments of others and use their own through their personal “laundromats”, the way it is done with American help in Afghanistan. The role of Tajikista in this is unclear, but evidently existing problems of development cannot be solved through it. Some experts even assume that the country will be used only as another transfer site. At the same time US tries to keep the region in its sphere of influence under minimal efforts from its side. This is also evidenced by the results of recent visit of Kazakhstani president Nursultan Nazarbaev to Washington, during which prospect for negotiating stage 5+1 (post USSR central Asian states, Kazakhstan plus USA were discussed.

Advancement of this initiatiev, which Russian minister of foreign affairs Lavrov recently called targeted at severing relations between Russian and CA states, will continue to be advanced by Americans also during an upcoming visit of Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoev to Washington.

There probably is no reason to expect high effectiveness form the 5+1 format, but it will definitely strengthen the constant presence of USA in the region, something that everyone, minus Turkmenistan is invested in (especially Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). But in this process Tajikistan’s principles definitely won’t be in the first place and will be considered as a second thought.

One of the cornerstones in the discussion of profitability of Tajikistan’s entering of EAEU remains the issue of customs tariffs: on one hand authorities don’t want price hikes for cheap goods and technology coming from China (the matter of their quality remains open). At the same time there are concerns that entering the EAEU will have a negative effect on development of local small business; for example the now developing meat and dairy industry of agriculture might die after more powerful players will enter this segment.

Thus, instead of the promised economic development, related to necessary reindustrialization and creation of jobs, the country might get additional factors of social tension. At the same time, it is necessary to remember that in the conditions of Tajikistan even a short-term worsening of already complicated socio-economic situation might have very negative consequences for the country’s authorities.

At the same time, Tajikistan, just like the other countries in the region understands that it cannot remain locked in in the middle of Eurasia, thus they understand the inevitability of participation in regional and global projects and meticulously try to determine the balance between their own national interests and demands given to them for participation in regional and global integration.

The delay choice between American and Russian projects allowed China to advance their own far ahead. Its realization has enriched not only Tajik but also Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Turkmen elites, but unfortunately didn’t give much to the population.

Attempts to couple OBOR with EAEU in order not to turn CA countries into periphery of Chinese economic system, for now look like a desire to make a friends of a dog and a cat. Also, it must be considered that in the past few years China has significantly increase investments into Tajikistan. Thus, the share of Tajikistan in the territorial distribution of Chinese direct investments has increased form 1% to 6%. We remind that in 2016 Chinese company has acquired 50% of JSC Azot and promised to invest 360 mil. USD within three years into modernization of this enterprise of chemical production of Tajiksitan. A significant flow of direct Chinese investments has started after regulating of territorial disputes with China in 2011. After that, annual growth makes up 55% each year.

At the same time, if first investments were related to development of deposits of nonferrous metals, in recent years Chinese investments are moving towards the sphere of production of building materials. For example, in 2016 the share of nonferrous metals in accumulated Chinese direct investments was estimated at 46% from their overall volume, and Tajik construction sector has already attracted 20% of them.

In this regards it is quite naïve to expect a real conflux of EAEU and OBOR from China. Such developments are good for solemn occasions, but are not good as a report. China is first of all dissatisfied with Moscow’s desire to achieve within EAEU the conduct of coordinated macroeconomic and financial-credit policy, by its members. China implements its projects within OBOR strictly on a bilateral basis and in no way will agree to necessity of coordinating its actions with third parties represented by EAEU or Moscow. Also lets not forget that China gives loans and not charity grants, and the collaterals on Chinese loans are strategically important assets with high long-term value. However, it seems that the role of Russia in bilateral relations and desire of Tajikistan to integrate with EAEU will rapidly rise in case China continues the practice recently tried out in Sri-Lanka, where in repayment Chinese loans, a deep-water Hambatot port was given into long-term lease for 99 years. They odds are that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan noticeably captivated by Chinese loans, will also soon be offered to share their national resources, necessary for China. At least the “land issues”  which were already voiced in the majority of listed states, do not rule out the development of events according to Sri-Lanka scenario.


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