Tajikistan's Leader Cancels Russia Visit

APTajik President Emomali Rakhmon
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan -- Tajikistan's president canceled a visit to Russia on Monday in a move analysts say may be designed to put pressure on Moscow to increase financial support for the impoverished nation or risk losing a key ally in Central Asia.

Moscow played a crucial role in helping Tajikistan, bordering Afghanistan, defeat Islamic rebels during a civil war in the 1990s. It has maintained influence over Tajikistan throughout the decade, but analysts say that may now be waning.

Tajik leader Emomali Rakhmon, long one of Russia's staunchest allies in the former Soviet bloc, had been due tow hold talks with President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow on Monday and take part in a regional summit there later this week.

But the visit was called off at the last minute. Tajikistan, emboldened by heightened U.S. attention because of its strategic location near Afghanistan, wants to show Moscow that it may consider alternative alliances with the West.

Officially, Tajikistan said Monday, the trip was canceled because Rakhmon needed to be at home to tackle a midwinter energy crisis. But similar problems had never prevented him from traveling to Russian summits in previous years.

Analysts say the root of the problem is a dispute over the half-built Rogun hydroelectric power plant.

Russia has for years vowed to help Tajikistan finish building Rogun to solve energy shortages. But with the financial crisis deepening, the project is taking longer than planned.

Aware of its strategic role as Washington seeks to reinforce supply routes to Afghanistan ahead of an expected U.S. troop buildup, Tajikistan wants to show that it will not wait forever.

"Reneging on promises given by Medvedev during his visit [to Tajikistan last year] could have been a reason behind the cancellation of Rakhmon's visit," said Rashid Abdullo, an independent Tajik analyst.

Rakhmon, whose economy depends on remittances from millions of Tajiks working in Russia, has never missed a Russian-organized event in the past.

Construction of the $1.3 billion to $3.2 billion Rogun power station, however, is a contentious regional project also criticized by neighboring Uzbekistan, which says it would give Dushanbe unlimited control over regional water resources.

Tajikistan, for its part, was upset with Medvedev's remarks during a visit to Uzbekistan last month, where he said Moscow would not take part in power projects unless regional players reached a compromise -- a nod of support to Uzbekistan, a state with considerable gas reserves.

"Reaching out for the [Uzbek] gas, Russia has managed to spoil relations with its loyal political ally," Abdullo said. "Russia cannot reconcile itself with a thought that the times have changed and it has now to find compromise with partners."