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Authoritarian regimes have endured throughout post-Soviet Central Asia. Perhaps the most fragile of these states, Tajikistan has managed to survive despite its horrific civil war in the 1990s.
Since the end of the conflict, political stability and foreign aid have allowed the country's economy to grow under the dictatorship of President Emomali Rahmon, whose Social Democratic Party, as expected, won the recent parliamentary election.
The Tajiks are a Sunni Muslim people whose language and culture, on the other hand, derive from Shia Persia. As such, two major Muslim rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have vied for influence in the state.
Tajikistan is generally considered Iran’s closest partner in Central Asia due to their linguistic, cultural and historical ties. The Tajik language is a dialect of Farsi. Moreover, Iran was the first country to recognize Tajikistan’s independence and to open its embassy in Dushanbe. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once described the relationship between the two as “one spirit in two bodies.”
Iran helped encourage cultural exchanges through conferences, media, and film festivals. Iranian television programs, magazines, and books became increasingly common in Tajikistan.
For a time, though, Riyadh seemed to have the upper hand. Saudi leaders stepped in to help Tajikistan financially in 2015 as the country’s relationship with Iran had soured over Iranian demands that Tajikistan pay off a $62 million debt to Tehran.
Tajikistan was also displeased that Iran invited Tajikistan’s Muhiddin Kabiri, the head of the Islamic Renaissance Party, a banned Tajik organization, to attend the 29th Islamic Unity Conference in December 2015. Kabiri, in exile in Turkey, had been accused of allegedly masterminding an unsuccessful armed mutiny in Tajikistan.
Kabiri even met with the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which led to Tajikistan's government summoning the Iranian ambassador to register its strong protest.
Tajik authorities also closed down an Iranian trade and cultural center in Khujand, the country’s second largest city, and helped block Iran’s application to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, started in 2001 by China, Russia and most of the Central Asian nations.
In 2017, India and Pakistan were admitted as members, but Iran was pointedly shut out. Tajikistan accused Tehran of having sent assassins and saboteurs into the former Soviet republic and of involvement in the murder of Tajik social and political figures when the country was embroiled in its civil war.
As relations with Saudi Arabia improved, the kingdom pledged to pump money into infrastructure projects like the new Rogun hydroelectric power plant project on the Vakhsh River; a highway in eastern Tajikistan; and investments in education.
The Saudis also backed a crackdown on Sunni mosques and clerics in Tajikistan. Around 2,000 or so mosques have been liquidated across Tajikistan over the past three years.
The authorities arrested dozens of people accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is banned in both Tajikistan and the kingdom, which pleased Saudi leaders.
But the pendulum is swinging back to Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Tajikistan in June 2019 and helped resolve some of the differences between the two countries. In turn, a month later Tajikistan Foreign Minister Sirodjidin Muhriddin skipped the Organization for Islamic Cooperation summit in Saudi Arabia to visit Tehran.
After all, landlocked Tajikistan needs access to Iranian ports, including the one in Chabahar at the top of the Arabian Sea, which offers the cheapest and shortest transportation option to the outside world.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.