oDR: Analysis

Tajikistan has a special relationship with Russia. Could war change that?

The difference between the silence of ‘official’ Dushanbe and the views found on Tajikistan’s streets could not be starker

Karolina Kluczewska
6 April 2022, 1.11pm
A Russian-Tajikistan friendship banner in Dushanbe
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Source: Karolina Kluczewska

It is a coincidence, albeit a telling one, that on 25 February, just after Russia attacked Ukraine, an important visit was taking place in Dushanbe.

Valentina Matviyenko, the chair of the Federation Council of Russia’s Federal Assembly, had come to Tajikistan’s capital for an inter-parliamentary forum and to discuss bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

In preparation for Matviyenko’s visit, several bilingual Russian-Tajik banners had appeared in the city centre. “The Republic of Tajikistan and the Russian Federation are united by traditional, friendly relations of strategic partnership, built on the principles of friendly respect and deep trust,” one of them stated.

Rather than the reality, however, this statement reflects Tajik policymakers’ wishful thinking, since they know full well their subordinated position to Russia, where more than a million Tajik labour migrants live. The money those workers send back to Tajikistan is equivalent to nearly 30% of Tajikistan’s GDP, though the figure is likely higher as migrant workers use many informal means to transfer money to their loved ones back home.

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As Russian state news agency TASS reported, during the visit Matviyenko passed “friendly greetings and best wishes” to Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon, and also informed him “about the situation concerning Ukraine”. The Tajik press release omitted this detail, enigmatically stating instead that “the two sides exchanged views on the rapidly changing political situation in the world”.

The state newspapers that I collected over the next few weeks did not disclose Tajikistan’s official position on the war in Ukraine either. In fact, they did not mention the war at all. When the Tajik press reported that Tajik citizens living in Ukraine had been evacuated via Poland at the beginning of March, all it could muster was a reference to the “current situation in Ukraine”. Clearly, Dushanbe refused to officially acknowledge that the Russia-Ukraine war was even taking place.

The Tajik government’s stance on the conflict and the state media’s scarce attention to it stood in sharp contrast with the intensity of the informal debate in Tajik society. For the first time in my nearly decade-long experience in the country, I witnessed animated and open public discussions on burning political issues. All of a sudden, everyone around me was talking about why the war happened and what the implications for Tajikistan would be.

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Dushanbe: Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon during a meeting in 2019

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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

While the government and state media remained silent, people were well aware of recent events in Ukraine. In most Tajik households, Russian TV channels play quietly in the background in the evenings. Independent Tajik news agency Asia Plus has also comprehensively covered the war in Ukraine by republishing often contradictory news from both Russian and Ukrainian sources, and providing commentary on the effects Western sanctions against Russia might have on Tajikistan’s economy.

But for many, especially the younger generation, social media has become the main source of information, including Telegram channels in Russian, a language Tajiks often speak due to historical ties during the Soviet Union and the sheer number of Tajiks working seasonally in Russia. In response to what they see as the ‘information war’ between Russia and the West, people often turned to social media in search for reliable information.

As one 30-year-old Dushanbe resident told me: “We cannot believe what Russia’s Channel One says, so there is no choice but to trust Telegram.” By trusting social media, however, people ended up being exposed to much unverified and often violent content.

The views from the street

Local perceptions of the war in Ukraine are diverse and complex.

One group I met manifests unconditional support for the Russian government. This group is relatively small but the most vocal, as its position is clear-cut and ideological. Its members do not appear to be limited to a specific class or age category. Instead, what unites them is the fact that they are active consumers of Russian news outlets, whose rhetoric they mirror. They believe that Ukrainians deserve to be punished for mistreating the Russian minority in Donbas. They are also convinced that the Ukrainian government is shelling its own people in Mariupol and elsewhere in the country, and that Russia is saving Ukrainians from their corrupt and fascist government.

When I mentioned that it was actually Russia shelling and killing Ukrainian civilians, an elder housewife from southern Tajikistan shouted back at me that this was “all fake”.

This episode reveals the power that Russian media still holds over many people in Tajikistan.

Although this woman speaks almost no Russian, she learned the Russified version of fake (“feyk”) from Russian TV, where it is systematically used to counter Western accounts of the war. For the older generation, who remember growing up in the Soviet Union as the happiest part of their lives, Russia represents the continuation of that lost world. As one older Tajik intellectual told me: “Although I know that it was Russia who invaded Ukraine, I feel offended when I see Russian soldiers being shot. I cannot do anything about it – it’s because I grew up in Soviet times and Russians had a particular status back then.”

The complete opposite view is shared by a small minority of people in their 20s and 30s from the urban upper-middle class, who studied in Europe or the United States, are fluent in English, and often work for international organisations in Dushanbe. They manifest their stance publicly by adding the Ukrainian flag to their social media profiles. (In Tajikistan, organising rallies for or against Russia’s war is unimaginable – there simply isn’t widespread motivation for street protests.)

In the course of conversations, however, what emerges is that these people are pro-Western rather than pro-Ukrainian, since Ukraine itself rarely features in the discussion. They share democratic and liberal values and are not quite comfortable with the communal and hierarchical nature of Tajik society. They are also not attracted to Russia because, unlike the majority of Tajik citizens, they have other points of reference and often feasible plans to relocate to the West.

Another reason why these people oppose Russia’s invasion is because it is upsetting their everyday comfort. Prices have been rising as a result of Western sanctions against Russia, which Tajikistan’s economy depends on for imports. The war also complicates their life plans. Some worry that the conflict may derail their plans to move to Europe or the US for study or work in the near future, since their somoni-denominated savings (Tajikistan’s currency) have been significantly depleted. To buffer the fall out from the ruble’s collapse, at the beginning of March the National Bank of Tajikistan increased the official exchange rates of the dollar and euro against the somoni by 15%, from approximately 11 to 13 somoni/USD and from 12 to 14 somoni/euro.

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Many food products in Tajikistan are imported from Russia

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Source: Karolina Kluczewska

When your neighbour’s house is on fire

Between these two polarised stances, the most common attitude was more balanced, perhaps due to Tajikistan’s own experience of conflict. During the 1990s, the country witnessed a long and tragic civil war between government and rebel groups. As a 40-year-old analyst confessed to me: “For those of us who saw the civil war [in Tajikistan], this is terrible. I cannot look at the pictures of Ukrainian refugees, leaving their houses with one suitcase. It recalls my own childhood memories. We were just like them.”

Such a compassionate attitude towards Ukrainians is often combined with a belief that in the long run the conflict could not be avoided. First, people see Russia as the most powerful country in the world, comparable only to the United States. “Many people here do not know anything other than Russia. They were never exposed to other countries and other ways of thinking. And so they have an impression that Russia is so big and important that it does not need to respect international laws,” a young academic from Dushanbe explained.

Second, there is a belief that the Ukrainian government itself bears responsibility for provoking Russia. This is because Ukraine, unlike Tajikistan, did not know its subordinate place in world politics. It dared to anger Russia by engaging in talks and commitments with the United States and the EU over the last years.

Third, a related perception in Tajikistan is that it was the West that provoked Russia by gradually expanding its sphere of influence to Eastern Europe, which Russia sees as its backyard. Ukraine is a victim of imperial-style politics on both the part of the West and Russia, as it found itself in between these two superpowers.

As a woman in her fifties, a journalist, put it to me: “This war is not between Russia and Ukraine, but between Russia and the West. Ukraine is just a victim. Russia used to warn the West multiple times: do not come closer, there is no need to enlarge the EU and NATO. But they kept expanding their influence to one country after another, and in the end Russia lost patience.”

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Source: Karolina Kluczewska

Regardless of the diversity of people’s opinions about the war, however, there is a general understanding on the ground that sanctions against Russia will have a massive economic impact on Tajikistan.

Within the first weeks after Russia’s invasion, the prices of basic food items in the country rose by between 10 and 20%. With the collapse of the Russian ruble within 10 days of the start of the war, remittances sent from Russia by Tajik labour migrants depreciated by 35%, and the World Bank foresees an overall decline in remittances by 22% in 2022. Migrants are already losing jobs in Russia and salaries are decreasing, but many do not want to return to Tajikistan knowing that no jobs are waiting for them at home.

As a civil society activist from Khujand put it: “We have nothing to do with this war, but it will have an influence on us. There is a Tajik saying that if your neighbour’s house is on fire, the flames will engulf your place too.”

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