The Republic of Tajikistan is a Muslim country located in the heart of Central Asia. Tajikistan borders Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyztsan, and China, and is entirely enclosed by land with no sea resources or direct access to seaborne trade. After it obtained independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the country plunged into a five-year civil war between the Moscow-backed government and the Islamist-led opposition. The “Tajik spring” was concluded with a peace treaty, which promised a proportion of governmental posts to representatives from the Islamic party. Tajikistan considers itself a secular state, but after decades of enforced secularism there has been strong Islamisation in recent years. The authoritarian government is extremely worried about the spread of Islamic radicalism, and therefore is constantly imposing restrictions on religious practice and trying to limit religious expression.
Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia, ranked 182 of 213 countries in the World Bank’s Gross National Income Per Capita chart of 2012, with an average per capita income of $872. Since the unofficial unemployment rate is high, up to one million of Tajikistan’s eight million inhabitants are forced to find work abroad. Many Tajiks face frequent electricity shortages and the quality of health care and education is usually low. In spite of these economic difficulties, a number of geopolitical factors make Tajikistan a key player in the Eurasia region – a) NATO and the United States are interested in deploying military facilities in Tajikistan after the International Security Assistance Force leaves Afghanistan; b) India needs Tajikistan to fight narcotics trafficking, counteract radical Islam, and to assist regional stability after the planned military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014; c) Iran traditionally has had close ties with Tajikistan since the countries share a common history, language and culture. Dushanbe depends on investment from Tehran especially in infrastructural construction projects. Tehran in return needs the Tajik government in order to gain a foothold in Afghanistan post-2014.
Tajikistan has eight registered political parties, among them the Islamic Renaissance Party, which is the only legal religious party in Central Asia. Despite having multiple parties, Tajikistan is not an electoral democracy. The country is much closer to a one-man rule – President Emomalii Rahmon, who was elected in 1994 after most opposition candidates either boycotted or were prevented from participating in the elections. A 2003 constitutional referendum enabled President Rahmon to remain in office until 2020.
On November 7th, the people of Tajikistan will go to the polls in the presidential elections, which is expected to see a victory for Rahmon, and an extension of his term until 2020, a more than two-decade rule in total. Rahmon won the previous elections with relative ease – a reported 97% in 1999 and 79% in 2006 of the population voted for him – due to lack of actual competition, according to the monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Tajikistan is considered to be “not free” by the NGO Freedom House; the government imposes restrictions on religious freedom, limits freedoms of assembly and association, and controls most of the media.
The dissolution of the former Soviet Union provided Jerusalem with an opportunity to engage with the new states of Central Asia. In reaching out to the new Muslim republics, Israel wanted to shift the center of its relations with the Muslim world northward, and prove that collaboration between the Jewish state and Muslim countries is indeed feasible. By doing so, Israel aimed to demonstrate that there is no global confrontation between Israel and the Islamic world or between Jews and Muslims.
In spite of popular opposition to normalizing relations with Jerusalem and strong influence by Iran, Dushanbe opened its doors to Israel. After establishing diplomatic relations in 1992, Tajikistan’s President met with the Israeli ambassador to Russia and announced that Tajikistan is in urgent need of Israeli economic, technical and scientific involvement in order to develop the Republic’s economy.
Since that statement, the bilateral relations have been characterized by small-scale development aid projects. Israel, for example, has sent doctors to Tajikistan to provide eye surgeries and has trained Tajik specialists in water resources management. However, relations took a leap forward in the past year; in February 2013, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs conducted a bilateral consultation and signed a Memorandum of Understanding to express their intention for future consultations. In July 2013, Israeli entrepreneurs and businessmen visited Dushanbe and met with the Tajik deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in order to expand bilateral economic ties.
It does not seem likely that the next Tajik government, presumably controlled by President Rahmon, will make an effort to strengthen relations between Jerusalem and Dushanbe. Hence, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government should take the lead and:
A) Build a more mature bilateral relationship – for now, strengthening of relations does not need high-profile state visits or major announcements. It should evolve over time through bilateral consultations on issues of mutual concern, such as regional security, developments in the Middle East and economic cooperation. A mutually beneficial partnership could be established, provided that Jerusalem leaves Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the side. Dushanbe, which enjoys close cultural and economic relations with Tehran, defends Iran’s right to a nuclear program and opposes the economic sanctions. Moreover, Israel needs to acknowledge and live with Tajikistan’s support for the Palestinian Authority in international organizations, in particular the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. This support led Tajikistan to endorse the U.N. Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (‘the Goldstone Report’) and to vote in favor of according Palestine non-Member Observer State status in the U.N.
B) Provide development aid, especially in the fields of agriculture and rural development – For the 70% of Tajiks who live in rural areas, agriculture is the main source of employment and income. In Tajikistan, agriculture accounts for 23% of the total Gross Domestic Product and 75% of total employment. However, very little land surface is arable since mountains cover 93% of Tajikistan’s surface area. At the same time, Tajikistan’s agriculture is characterized by poor water management practices, old-fashioned and inefficient irrigation systems, and little access to improved technologies. Israel is considered a world leader when it comes to environmental sustainability, especially concerning water. The Israeli Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) and the Israeli Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation (CINADCO) should aim to introduce modern technologies and agro-technical methods in Tajikistan designed to increase the sustainability and quality of agricultural production.
C) Create bilateral trade – Trade between the countries literally does not exist. Between 2009 and 2011, Israeli imports from Tajikistan averaged around $5,000 per year and exports averaged around $400,000 per year. Although Tajikistan has no large-scale resources of natural gas or oil, it is rich in gold, silver, coal, zinc, lead, marble and uranium. Jerusalem, for instance, could import coal instead of purchasing it from distant places like Columbia or South Africa. In 2011, Israel consumed around 14 million tons of coal, mostly for electricity generation. Although this figure is likely to be reduced in the following years because of the rapid growth of the natural gas sector, importing coal from Tajikistan could be cheaper and useful in reviving the bilateral trade.
The regional order post-Arab Spring has thrown Israel’s geo-strategic balance into disarray – the severely damaged Israeli-Turkish military alliance, the new partnership between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the unpredictability of Egypt’s policies, and the unknown future of the Syrian regime. Under these circumstances, Israel needs to be on the lookout for new allies in the Muslim world. The Central Asian republics, among them Tajikistan, are strong candidates in this regard. Needless to say, relations with a Muslim country based on shared interests and with a focus on Israeli expertise would help create a perception of Israel as a regional power, rather then a belligerent state. In cultivating the relationship with Tajikistan, Jerusalem should be aware that relations with an authoritarian regime could also hurt its international image and expose it to criticism.