Tajikistan -European countries’ relations have been rather frosty in recent years. Tajik President, Emomali Rahmon, has visited Europe on just few occasions. Such unwelcome relations have been primarily fed by the soaring trend of authoritarianism in the Persian-speaking republic, the political asylum of thousands of Tajik opposition figures in European countries, as well as political and media scrutiny on Dushanbe over human rights and civil liberties. His last trip to a European country took place in October 2019 during which Rahmon visited Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic. These trips were of course not free of controversies, frequently plagued by protest rallies staged by numerous opposition elements. Earlier in 2017, Rahmon traveled to Germany and the Czech Republic. However, two years later, he is expected to make another trip to Europe in late 2021. It seems that, however, this trip is going to be a far cry from the previous ones given the developments in Afghanistan and the warm welcome of European officials.
On August 25, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon had a phone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron. The Afghanistan crisis, it is speculated, to be the main theme of consultations and exchanges between the parties. According to official statements issued by the Tajik government, in the phone call, Rahmon emphasized Tajikistan's role in the peace and stability of its southern neighbor, citing the potential of a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. The two presidents also agreed to develop political consultations and step up cooperation on Afghanistan. The following day, the Tajik presidential press service officially announced that Macron had officially invited Rahmon to visit France. According to the statement, the trip will probably take place in mid-October. Two days later (August 27th), in another call, the President of Tajikistan talked to Charles Michel, the Belgian President of the Council of Europe. Michelle joined Macron in inviting Rahmon to pay an official visit to Brussels, likely to take place after the Paris visit. On the same day, French Ambassador Michel Tarran met Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin in Dushanbe. The situation in Afghanistan and its impact on regional security was the main focus of the meeting. Arrangements for Rahmon’s upcoming visit to Paris and the implementation of possible agreements between the two presidents could be among the other highlights of the meeting. Meanwhile, Tajik opposition figures in Europe are poised as ever to hold protest rallies against his presence. The French government has not previously stopped the protests, using them as a lever of pressure instead.
Possible motives of the parties
Given the recent developments in Afghanistan and Imam Ali Rahmon’s profile, it seems that the main motivation of the parties is dedicated to the former. In recent weeks, public opinion and political circles have picked many signals of the Tajik government's implicit support for Ahmad Massoud, Amrullah Saleh and Mohammad Mohaqiq as leaders of a current of Tajik resistance. About two weeks ago, some media outlets in India, Afghanistan and Central Asia published images of the transfer of several helicopters of weapons, equipment and supplies to the resistance forces in Panjshir, claiming that an airline had been set up to feed the resistance forces from Tajikistan. Shortly after, the Tajik Foreign Ministry and forces affiliated with Ahmad Massoud both denied the news. However, if transferring equipment and supplies by helicopter to Panjshir (according to the alleged images) is to be believed, there can be no other source for this than Tajikistan given the geographical location of Panjshir in eastern Afghanistan, where it is sandwiched between Pakistan and Tajikistan. At the same time, launching the "Let's Go to War" campaign for Tajik citizens in Panjshir to fight the Taliban has created a lot of controversy in Tajik public opinion. Some government officials have implicitly declared the move illegal, but there has been no serious opposition. Given the closely monitored cyberspace in the country that has seen the arrest and imprisonment of individuals for even one "like" on social media, it can be concluded that the government, and in particular the State Committee for National Security of Tajikistan, is a supporter of such schemes or has not opposed it at least. However, the most earnest recent moves were made during Imam Ali Rahmon's recent meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. During the meeting, Rahmon, while strongly supporting the rights of Tajiks, stated that the government in Afghanistan should be decided through a referendum, taking into account the rights of all Afghan citizens. He also referred to the rights of minorities in Afghanistan and condemned any lawlessness, murder, looting, harassment and persecution. The President of Tajikistan also explicitly stated that he would not recognize a government formed without the presence of all minorities, including Tajiks. In another part of his speech, he put the number of Tajiks in Afghanistan at 46 percent and implicitly called for such a share for Tajiks in Afghanistan. Many sources, however, consider the Tajiks to be Afghanistan's second largest ethnic minority after the Pashtuns, with about 25 percent of the population. The Tajik presidential press service also said in a statement that the Taliban had promised to scrap the idea of an interim government with other political groups and to prepare for the establishment of the Islamic Emirate. This level of support for the Tajik ethnicity is unprecedented in the statements and positions of Imam Ali Rahmon. Earlier, it was reported that the government had not issued visas to some prominent Tajik figures to immigrate to the country following the Taliban advance. At the same time, tacit agreements with the Taliban and adherence to Russia require a convergent position with the Taliban. However, tacit support for Ahmad Massoud and his outspoken stance against Pakistan was a position that even aroused the admiration of Rahmon’s opponents. From this point of view, given France's extensive contacts with Ahmad Massoud and his forces, it seems that the French government also welcomed these merciful positions, and this trip was formed with the aim of setting up a political front to support the Tajik movement in Panjshir.
In France, too, there appear to be pre-determined plans to support the Panjshir resistance and engage with the Tajik government. Ahmed Massoud has been in France for a long time and has fashioned close ties with the government. Meanwhile, the appointment of Michel Tarran as the country's new ambassador to Dushanbe from late 2020 could also carry some political messages. He served at the French Embassy in Albania from 1994 to 1998, after which he served as Deputy Chief of the French Liaison Office in Kosovo from 1999 to 2001 due to his close ties to Albanians of Kosovo Free Army. Tarran then served as political adviser to the UN mission in Kosovo until 2003, and is well acquainted with the context of the civil war and similar crises. In addition to France's recent ambitions to ramp up its presence and influence in the Middle East, as exemplified by the recent Baghdad conference, Paris seems to have drafted more ambitious plans for Afghanistan. In addition, April 2022 presidential election in France should be put in perspective, which is less than 8 months away. A field, political, and especially media achievement in the Middle East could shore up Macron’s positions and the independent Ann Marsh party.
The formation of a common political axis between Tajikistan and France in support of the Tajik current of the Panjshir resistance could have different levels and, of course, different consequences. At present, it seems unlikely that this support can find at the operational and field implications, in the form of military, weapons and logistical support. Such a move could incur heavy costs for Tajikistan's security, and Russia would strongly oppose it. However, this will be possible if the Taliban form a unified Pashtun government (given some speculation that the Taliban will form a 12-member leadership council) and Afghanistan is on the brink of civil war. However, as a second scenario, at the political level, the formation of such an axis can strengthen the position of these countries in the process of forming an inclusive government as a lever of balance. Presently, such a move could delay the formation of the government and will be a time factor for these countries. Tajikistan has particular concerns about the Ansarullah group and could use the Panjshir stream against this threat and other cases against the Taliban. India is the third player that looks set to be added in the future. However, in Kashmir and in the run-up to India's 2020 elections, this turnout is likely to be lower than in Tajikistan and France. The developments of September until Rahmon’s visit to Paris can show the level and type of this cooperation even more. In this context, maintaining some contacts between Tehran and Dushanbe in this regard can be considered as an alternative option for future developments in the face of the Turkey-Pakistan-US axis.
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