Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Geopolitics versus Democracy in Tajikistan

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Geopolitics versus Democracy in Tajikistan

Article excerpt

Abstract: The convergence of international attention on Central Asia in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks offered hope for Tajikistan's fragile democracy. Washington's commitment to enhancing civil society and democratic rule was cause for celebration among the opposition activists. This was a peculiar experience as the Islamic Renaissance Party has been a mainstay of the opposition movement. Tajikistan is the only Central Asian republic that has allowed the open political engagement of an Islamic party. This has been a novel, albeit difficult experiment. But the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and ongoing security concerns appear to have diverted Washington's attention from Tajikistan's democratic state building. The United States has edged toward a policy aimed at preserving the status quo for fear of destabilizing the region. This policy is not dissimilar to that of Russia. Consequently, the prospects of an external boost to Tajikistan's novel democratic experiment are fading fast.

Key words: democracy, geopolitics, Islamic Renaissance Party, Tajikistan, U.S. policy

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In December 2002, a year after the launch of the war on terror and the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a regional newspaper in Tajikistan's northern province invoked a folkloric tale to explain U.S. behavior in Tajikistan. This was a tale of neighborly relations and abuse of trust. Mula Nasreddin, the famous wise man/fool of Central Asian folklore, had turned to his neighbor for help to protect his home from robbers. The neighbor cheerfully agreed and stayed in Mula's home to fend off robbers. But after a while the neighbor realized that Mula's house was much better than his own and decided to stay even though the thieves had left. The editor of Sugd proceeded to remind the readers that this would not be the fate of Tajikistan. The United States had no need to overstay its welcome in Tajikistan and behave like an unscrupulous neighbor because it had all the resources it needed. (1)

The editor may have been correct in his the assessment since the United States has not tried to station troops in Tajikistan and effectively scaled down helicopter flights from the southern city of Kulob in mid-2002. Even after neighboring Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops from Karshi-Khanabad air base in 2005, Washington did not approach Dushanbe for military base access. The absence of a U.S. military presence, however, does not equate with the absence of U.S. strategic interests in Tajikistan. The September 11 attacks and the war on terror have changed the geopolitical landscape. Tajikistan is no longer a remote corner of the post-Soviet zone, but a key piece in the large jigsaw that makes up U.S. defense policy, announced by President George W. Bush in September 2002. The Bush doctrine of projecting U.S. power beyond American borders to meet emerging or established threats to U.S. interests, dubbed the policy of preemption, is particularly concerned with weak and unstable states that could serve as safe havens for terrorist activity. Afghanistan had been one such state and Tajikistan was in danger of sliding in that direction. The U.S. Department of Defense Review in October 2001 identified Central Asia as an "arc of instability," (2) with the unmistakable conclusion that the United States had every reason to be involved in the region. It was precisely this line of thought that concerned Moscow, as Washington seemed to be making a qualitative break with the past practice of abandoning Central Asia to Russia's sphere of influence.

The heightened level of international interest in Tajikistan adds a new dimension to the democratic experiment there. Despite reservations about the military operation in neighboring Afghanistan, Tajik opposition parties are cautiously optimistic about the U.S. role in prodding Tajikistan along the democratization path. This optimism came on the heel of growing frustration with the slow pace of the move toward political pluralism, and recovery from the civil war. …

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