Who Needs Tajikistan?

Russia and Tajikistan are not only separated by thousands of kilometers of steppes, desert and mountain ranges, but by several independent governments: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. It is here, in this prison cell, surrounded by the Pamir Mountains, that a large contingent of more than 30,000 soldiers and officers from the Russian border forces and the 201st Motor-rifle Division is concentrated.

The war in Tajikistan began in the fall of 1992, when the motor-rifle division sided with the pro-communist regime of the current Tajik president, Imomali Rakhmonov. But the war among Tajik clans continues, and Russian soldiers are still dying in this region. Why then does Russia still need Tajikistan, which has caused such financial outlays and heavy human losses?

Today the most influential Central Asian power is not the enormous territory of Kazakhstan, with its democratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, but the more compact Uzbekistan, under the totalitarian regime of President Islam Karimov.

Given its natural resources -- cotton, gold and oil -- and economic potential, this republic can be considered the leader among the Turkish-speaking governments of Central Asia. This is reflected in the policies of Karimov himself, who is establishing firm relations with the main surrounding governments and is the only leader among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States who does not indulge President Boris Yeltsin or seek his friendship.

Russian politicians have misgivings over Uzbekistan's independent and authoritarian policies. As a result of Uzbekistan's influence in the region, all strategic roads from Tajikistan to the external world have been blockaded. Only humanitarian aid and military technology from Russian military forces is allowed to reach the republic.

Conflicts between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have continued on the border and in some regions of the republic for four years now. Tajikistan is run by criminal elements and clan members related to the present heads of government. Only thanks to the support of the Russian military has Rakhmonov been able to feel secure. All of which worries Karimov, who has tried to use his influence to pressure the Tajik president.

A war between Tajiks and Uzbeks is highly unlikely, though, since such events would not benefit either side. But, without a doubt, Tajikistan's well-being depends entirely on its neighbor.

For Russia, Tajikistan is seen as a means to exert its influence on the region and somewhat contain Karimov's arbitrariness.

But what are Russia's economic interests in Tajikistan?

The territory of Tajikistan is 93 percent mountainous, with enormous resources of non-ferrous metals, coal, granite, marble, oil and gold. According to experts, the entire periodic table can be found in the Pamirs. Under stable political conditions and with much capital investment, Russia could control these resources.

Under Brezhnev, when the socialist economic system was still functioning, Tajikistan supplied the Soviet Union with about a million tons of valuable, fine-fiber cotton each year. This amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of revenue, with cheap labor and minimal capital investment.

Today, however, Tajikistan is a large debtor to Russia. At the end of the wide-scale civil war in 1993, the republic was on the edge of starvation and a complete collapse of industry. Russia allotted several million rubles of credit to the Tajik government, taking the main large-scale strategic plants, such as the gold factory in Chkalovsk, the aluminum plant in Tursunzad, and several middle-sized industries, which provided most of the hard currency reserves to the budget of the impoverished government, as collateral. Despite the complete economic catastrophe of the last few years, cotton plantations and the aluminum factory brought returns of up to $1 billion a year. Russia could not deny itself such riches.

Today, Russia invests more than it receives from Tajikistan. But political stability could make up for its losses in a few years.

The possibility of an Islamic invasion from the south, in case of a victory of the Tajik opposition over the communist regime in Dushanbe, frightens many Russians. This scenario, however, is unlikely, since there are either pro-communist or democratic anti-Islamic sentiments in all the Turkish-speaking countries of Central Asia. For the moment, neither Iran, Afghanistan nor Pakistan have any influence in this region.

Even the successes of the Islamic forces in the mountainous regions of Tajikistan cannot be seen as a serious threat.

Aside from Russia's strategic and economic interests in Tajikistan, there is another danger. Narcotics is one of the greatest problems facing the country. It is no secret that Tajikistan is the main conduit for opium in its raw state from Afghanistan. But the continuing economic crisis in the republic brought the country to the brink of starvation, which forced the local inhabitants to cultivate poppy and marijuana plants out of desperation. The climatic conditions in this region are ideal for such cultivation. Tajikistan could conceivably follow the path of central Afghanistan, whose economy is mainly based on the narcotics business. This threat is more serious than the Islamic factor, since most of the narcotics end up in Russia.

Of all these factors, it cannot be said that Russia has any comprehensive interests in the country. Russia will not abandon Tajikistan, however, despite the enormous economic costs and military losses. Moscow continues to lend its support to the criminal regime in Dushanbe, since President Rakhmonov still suits his "hosts." In a word, this can be called geopolitics.

Mumin Shakirov is a special correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.