Foreign Relations

Tajikistan Table of Contents

Tajikistan had a ministry of foreign affairs for nearly forty years before it became an independent state at the end of 1991. As long as it was part of the Soviet Union, however, the republic had no power to conduct its own diplomacy. The central objective of newly independent Tajikistan's foreign policy was to maximize its opportunities by developing relations with as many states as possible. Particular diplomatic attention went to two groups of countries: the other former Soviet republics and Tajikistan's near neighbors, Iran and Afghanistan, which are inhabited by culturally related peoples. At the same time, Tajikistan pursued contacts with many other countries, including the United States, Turkey, and Pakistan. In 1995 Tajikistan opened its first embassy outside the former Soviet Union, in Turkey. The potential for political support and economic aid is at least as important in shaping Tajikistan's diplomacy as are ideological and cultural ties.

Former Soviet Republics

Like the other Central Asian republics, Tajikistan joined the CIS, which was created in December 1991, three weeks before the Soviet Union collapsed officially. Shortly before opposition demonstrators forced President Rahmon Nabiyev to resign in August 1992, he asked several presidents of former Soviet republics, including President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia, to help him stay in power. They refused this request. In the fall of 1992, the increasingly embattled coalition government that succeeded Nabiyev asked the other members of the CIS to intervene to end the civil war. However, such assistance was not provided.

Through the mid-1990s, Russia played a role in independent Tajikistan by its military presence there, in the form of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division and the Border Troops (see Russia's Role in the Early 1990s, this ch.). Russian personnel in Dushanbe acted as advisers to the post-civil war government. Russians also held important positions in the Dushanbe government itself, most notably the Ministry of Defense, which was led from 1992 to 1995 by Aleksandr Shishlyannikov. Yuriy Ponosov, who had a generation of experience as a CPSU official in Tajikistan before the breakup of the Soviet Union, became Tajikistan's first deputy prime minister in March 1996.

The protection of the Russian minority in strife-ridden Tajikistan is a stated foreign policy goal of the Russian government. Russia's concern was eased somewhat by the conclusion of a dual-citizenship agreement between the two countries in 1995. Russia also has justified its active involvement in the affairs of Tajikistan by citing the need to defend the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border--and thus, the CIS--from penetration by Islamic extremism and drug trafficking.

Independent Tajikistan has troubled relations with two neighboring former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a situation that began long before independence. In the 1980s, a dispute over two scarce resources in Central Asia, water and arable land, soured relations between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In June 1989, the situation burst into spontaneous, grassroots violence over competing claims to a small parcel of land. That conflict led to mutual recriminations that continued until a settlement was reached in 1993. Tensions were heightened in 1992 by Kyrgyzstan's fear that the Tajikistani civil war would spill over the border, which had never been defined by a bilateral treaty. Despite tense relations between the two republics, Kyrgyzstan attempted to negotiate an end to Tajikistan's civil war, and it sent medicine and other aid to its beleaguered neighbor. After the civil war, Kyrgyzstan sent a contingent of troops to Tajikistan as part of the joint CIS peacekeeping mission (see The Armed Forces, this ch.).

Tajikistan's relations with Uzbekistan present a contradictory picture. On the one hand, Tajik intellectuals, and at times the Dushanbe government, have criticized Uzbekistan for discrimination against its Tajik minority. In response, citing fears of Islamic radicalism in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan closed its Tajik-language schools in mid-1992. On the other hand, antireformists in both republics have maintained good relations based on the interest they shared in the defeat of reformers in Tajikistan in the early 1990s. Uzbekistan gave military support to the factions that won Tajikistan's civil war and closed its border with Tajikistan in the fall of 1992 to prevent opposition refugees from the civil war from fleeing to Uzbekistan.

After the civil war, Uzbekistan's attitude toward Tajikistan became increasingly ambivalent. One aspect of Uzbekistan's policy continued its earlier effort to prevent the opposition from taking power in Tajikistan; a 1993 cooperation treaty between the two countries, stipulating a role for Uzbekistan's air force in the defense of Tajikistan--which has no air force of its own--manifested that concern. However, the government in Tashkent was increasingly displeased that the dominant factions among the victors in Tajikistan's civil war were much less amenable to Uzbekistan's leadership than were the factions that had controlled Tajikistani politics before the war. By 1995 the Uzbekistani government was urging the government in Dushanbe to be more conciliatory toward the opposition in postwar peace talks.

The leaders of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan repeatedly extolled the value of regional economic and environmental cooperation in the early 1990s. In reality, however, only limited progress was made toward such cooperation. Oil and natural gas producers Kazakstan and Turkmenistan interrupted fuel deliveries to Tajikistan, in the hopes of improving the terms of the sales agreements that had prevailed under the Soviet system. With consumer goods generally in short supply, Tajikistan has taken measures to prevent citizens of the neighboring republics from purchasing such items from Tajikistani stockpiles. Tajikistan also is wary of regional water use plans that might increase the share of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in water emanating from Tajikistan.


When Tajikistan declared independence, Iran was one of the first countries to extend diplomatic recognition, and the first to establish an embassy in Dushanbe. In 1992 Iran provided training for a group of Tajik diplomats from Tajikistan. After 1991 bilateral contacts in the mass media and in sports increased significantly, and Iran funded construction of several new mosques in Tajikistan. Some of Tajikistan's most important contacts with Iran in the early 1990s were cultural. For example, Tajikistan held an Iranian film festival, an exhibition of Iranian art, and two exhibits of Iranian publications. Dushanbe was the site of international conferences on Persian culture and the Tajik language. In the early 1990s, Iranian books and magazines became increasingly available in Tajikistan, and Dushanbe television carried programs from Iran. The main obstacle to such cultural contact is the fact that only a very small portion of the Tajikistani population can read the Arabic alphabet (see Ethnic Groups and Forces of Nationalism, this ch.).

Despite the obvious ideological differences between the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran and the secular communist regime in newly independent Tajikistan, Nabiyev actively cultivated relations with Iran. When Nabiyev's position was threatened in 1992, his speeches repeatedly stressed both the cultural and the religious ties between the two countries. He subsequently made a direct request for aid from Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (see Transition to Post-Soviet Government, this ch.).

The leading figures of the Islamic revival movement in Tajikistan say emphatically that whatever eventual form of Islamic state they advocate for Tajikistan, Iran is not the model to be followed. Part of the reason for this position is that Iran is predominantly Shia Muslim while Tajikistan is mainly Sunni, a distinction with important implications for the organization of the religious leadership and its relationship with the state. An equally important reason is that the social structures of Tajikistan and Iran are considered too different for Iran's linkage of religious and political powers to be adopted in Tajikistan.

In the fall of 1992, Iran repeatedly offered to help mediate Tajikistan's civil war in cooperation with other Central Asian states. Although such offers produced no negotiations, Iran did send food and set up camps for refugees from Tajikistan. After the civil war, relations between Iran and the new government in Dushanbe included efforts to develop a modus vivendi as well as periodic recriminations. Iran worked with Russia in attempting to negotiate a peace agreement between the Dushanbe government and the opposition. In July 1995, Tajikistan opened an embassy in Tehran, one of its few outside the former Soviet Union.


Tajikistan's relations with Afghanistan, the country with which it shares its long southern border, have been affected not only by the cultural and ethnic links between inhabitants of the countries but also by the way the Soviet regime tried to use those links to ensure the survival of a communist government in Kabul after 1979. The Soviets put Tajiks from Tajikistan in positions of power in the Soviet-backed Afghan government and sent propaganda publications from Tajikistan to Afghanistan. Afghans were brought to Tajikistan for education and communist indoctrination, and Tajiks served in the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan. In 1991 the political climate in Tajikistan allowed some citizens to criticize the war openly, although there was no reliable gauge of how widely this antiwar opinion was shared.

Into the early 1990s, the communist government in Dushanbe and the then-communist government in Kabul favored the development of economic relations and exchanges in the fields of education and publishing. During the civil war, the antireformist side alleged that its opponents relied heavily on the subversive actions of Afghan mujahidin . Most neutral observers dismissed the large-scale role of Afghans as a propaganda ploy.

Rugged terrain and poor border enforcement make the Tajikistan- Afghanistan border very permeable. Beginning in 1992, border crossings--for private smuggling, to escape the Tajikistani civil war, or to obtain weapons for one side or the other in that war--became increasingly numerous. By early 1993, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 50,000 to 70,000 refugees had gone from southern Tajikistan to northern Afghanistan. By 1994 many of them had returned home, although the exact number is not available.

Relations between Tajikistan's post-civil war government and Afghanistan often were troubled through the first half of the 1990s. Tajikistan accused Afghanistan of complicity in cross-border attacks by exiled opposition members based in northern Afghanistan. In turn, Afghanistan accused Russian forces on the Tajikistan side of the border of killing Afghan civilians in reprisal attacks. The situation changed in late 1995 and early 1996, when Russia began to support President Burhanuddin Rabbani's faction in the ongoing Afghan civil war. Rabbani then tried to improve relations with the Dushanbe government and to mediate a settlement between it and the opposition.

The United States

Although the United States was the second country to open an embassy in Dushanbe, that outpost was evacuated in October 1992, at the height of the civil war, and was not reopened until March 1993. Beginning in 1992, antireformists and the opposition both sought support from the United States. Thus, a trip by Secretary of State James Baker to Tajikistan in February 1992 antagonized members of the opposition, who saw the visit as granting tacit approval to Nabiyev's political repression. Relations with the opposition were improved somewhat a few months later, when a human rights delegation from the United States Congress met with several opposition leaders.

During the civil war, the United States provided emergency food supplies and medicines to Tajikistan, and independent Tajikistan continued the cooperative program on earthquake forecasting techniques that had begun with the United States during the Soviet era. By the mid-1990s, United States policy toward Tajikistan centered on support for peace negotiations and on encouraging Tajikistan to develop closer relations with the IMF and other financial organizations that could help in the rebuilding process.


The main source of tension between China and Tajikistan is China's claim on part of Tajikistan's far eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region. Between 1992 and 1995, sixteen rounds of negotiations between China and a commission representing Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakstan, and Kyrgyzstan failed to produce a border agreement. An interim agreement, scheduled for signing in April 1996, stipulated that no attacks would be launched across the border in either direction and that both sides would provide ample notice of military exercises in the area. Despite their border dispute, China and the post-civil war government of Tajikistan share a hostility toward reformist political movements, especially those that could be stigmatized as Islamic fundamentalist. By the mid-1990s, this common ground had become the basis for a working relationship between the two governments.

International Organizations

Tajikistan joined the UN in 1992. In the fall of that year, the Tajikistani coalition government requested UN aid in ending the civil war and supporting political democratization, but only a UN mission and a call for an end to hostilities resulted. Tajikistan joined the CSCE in February 1992. In 1993 and 1994, membership was obtained in the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the World Bank, the IMF, and the Economic Cooperation Organization.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress