Karolina Kluczewska, PhD, is FWO postdoctoral fellow at Ghent Institute for International and European Studies, Ghent University
This paper analyses Tajikistan’s foreign policy towards Russia between 1991 and 2023 by identifying four distinct stages of this process and exploring their structural determinants. Characteristics of each stage reflect a unique combination of Soviet-era path dependencies, domestic developments in Tajikistan and Russia within a specific time period, as well as changes in the broader international context in which relations between the two countries are embedded. Overall, we can see a clear evolution of Tajik policymakers’ perceptions of, and expectations from, Russia.
Following its independence, Tajikistan has been trying to diversify its international relations. As a small, poor, peripheral and post-conflict country, Tajikistan is largely dependent on assistance from external partners. Although the Tajik government has dedicated significant attention to building durable relations with the United States (US) and Western European countries, along with China, the oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf, and Japan and South Korea, Russia has always occupied a special place in its foreign policy. Although Tajikistan does not have a separate foreign policy framework dedicated only to Russia, Russia is officially recognised as its strategic partner. In private, Tajik policymakers often refer to Russia as their country’s older brother, which is quite telling about Tajikistan’s positionality vis-à-vis Russia. This metaphor denotes an intrinsic type of connection which cannot be disentangled, just like with one’s family members. This expression points to shared Soviet history, as well as some ideological alignment regarding, for example, policymakers’ preference for a centralised, top-down form of governance. At the same time, Tajikistan’s position as a younger sibling reveals a clearly hierarchical relation with Russia in the driving seat.
The paper proceeds by outlining the four stages of Tajikistan’s foreign policy towards Russia: stage 1 in the 1990s, when Tajik policymakers were actively searching for Russia’s support; stage 2 in the 2000s, when Tajikistan launched an ‘open door’ foreign policy but continued to prioritise Russia; stage 3 in the 2010s, when Tajik policymakers slowly realised the negative consequences of excessive economic dependence on Russia; and stage 4, from 2022 onwards when Tajikistan started trying to navigate its subordinated position while recognising that it cannot disengage with Russia.
STAGE 1 IN THE 1990S: ACTIVELY SEEKING RUSSIA’S SUPPORT
From the early days of its independence in 1991, Tajikistan found itself in a subordinated position towards Russia. Arguably, this relation could not have developed differently. Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union as its successor state. Tajikistan, in contrast, embraced independence as a peripheral and resource-poor country and was soon torn by a civil war (1992-1997).
Already dealing with challenges from its own post-socialist transformation in the early 1990s, initially Russia was not interested in interfering in Tajikistan’s domestic conflict. The Tajik pro-government forces, however, were actively seeking Russia’s attention and eventually managed to mobilise its support. Following the Soviet collapse, Russia was led by a former high-ranking member of the Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, and the pro-government military fraction in Tajikistan involved former communists from the Khujand and Kulob regions, who fought against the opposition, dominated by Islamist insurgents. A Soviet-era ideological alignment was thus clearly visible in that early arrangement between the two countries.
During the civil war, the Tajik authorities expected both symbolic and material support from Russia. In 1993, the two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. Arguably, however, this friendship and cooperation was needed much more by the Tajik than the Russian side. In 1994, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) proudly stated that ‘ties with Russia, the political centre of the Commonwealth of Independent States, contribute to the development of the republic.’ Indeed, in the context of the civil war, the backing of Russia as the Soviet successor state has significantly boosted Tajik government’s legitimacy at home and abroad. Moreover, in practical terms, it allowed the pro-government forces to gain an upper hand in fighting the insurgents. This was largely thanks to the involvement of the Soviet 201st Motor Rifle Division, which was still stationed in Tajikistan when the Soviet Union collapsed. As in the case of several Soviet assets that previously were jointly owned, in 1992, Boris Yeltsin reinstated this division under Russia’s direct control. Together with the 201st division, the Tajik forces were thus able to quickly regain control of Dushanbe and launch an offensive against the rebels who were concentrated in the southwestern parts of the country… [to read the full version, please download the paper]Download full paper
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan. 1994. Дипломатия Таджикистана (к 50-летию создания Министерства иностранных дел Республики Таджикистан: 13. https://mfa.tj/uploads/main/2013/03/diplomatiya_tajikistana_50.pdf