Emomali Rahmon’s Official Visit to Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region: Why Does It Matter?

Emomali Rahmon
The President of the Republic of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, visited the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (Credits: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 33 Issue 7
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

Emomali Rahmon’s visits to the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) highlights Dushanbe’s commitment to regional development and control, yet also expose the challenge of balancing local discontent with central authority.

The working trip serves also as messages to international partners while underscoring the fragile geopolitical position of the region between China’s Xinjiang and Afghanistan, which might experience a rising popular disappointment and foreign interferences.

Background Information

On August 15th, 2023, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon arrived in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) to get acquainted with the course of construction and improvement activities in honour of the 35th anniversary of State Independence, conduct conversations and meetings with residents.

Work got underway in the Darvaz region, where the Tajik president was introduced to the advancements made in the renovation and reconstruction of the Kalai-Khumb-Vanch road section within the larger scheme of the Dushanbe-Kulma highway.

The segment of road that spans 109 kilometres crosses the Darvaz and Vanj regions’ territories. The road passes through the Darvaz mountain range: it is considered a hard-to-reach road on a national scale and has not been subjected to major repairs for numerous years.

China will implement the highway construction project by investing the total amount of 1 billion 307 million Chinese yuan (around $190 million). After a complete reconstruction and renovation, the section will be reduced by 16 kilometres to a total of 92.3 kilometres.

Previously, on September 27th, 2021, Tajik president Emomali Rahmon paid a visit to the Darvaz region and announced the beginning of the construction work of the road. The project customer is the Ministry of Transport of the Republic of Tajikistan, its coordinator is the State Institution “Centre for the Implementation of the Project for the Reconstruction of the Dushanbe-Chanak Road” and the main contractor is the China Road and Bridge Corporation.

On this section, based on the project, it is planned to build 15 automobile bridges, two tunnels with a length of 5,200 meters, 5 avalanche corridors with a length of 438 meters, 22,000 meters of reinforced concrete and stone curbs, installation of 200 water pipes and lighting of 14 villages of Darvaz and Vanch regions with a length of 17. 7 kilometres.

On August 17th, 2023, as part of his working trip, Emomali Rahmon opened an enterprise for the production of metal structures in Khorog. Created by the head of the Pamir-EnergoService LLC, Abdulatif Amonulloev, this enterprise conducts activities in the construction of high-voltage power lines in GBAO.

The company, created in honour of the 35th anniversary of the State Independence, imported and installed four units of large automatic equipment and six small production machines from the People’s Republic of China.

The enterprise is next to the international highway Khorog – Murgab – Kulma, and it is one of the industrial facilities of GBAO’s capital.

Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region: A Geopolitical Scenario

GBAO has captured the attention of global powers because of its strategic significance and resource-rich terrain. Under Dushanbe’s control, the region grapples with a complex interaction between central authority and local dynamics.

Despite encompassing over 40% of Tajikistan’s territory, GBAO houses just 2.4% of its population. The region’s history is marred by conflicts involving the local government, security forces, and central authorities. In 2018, President Rahmon criticised regional authorities for permitting a “state of lawlessness” to take root, responding by deploying additional security forces.

Recent years have witnessed internal strife and violent clashes within GBAO, prompting concerns from abroad. A pivotal moment occurred in November 2021 when security forces’ actions led to widespread protests. In response, the government implemented a forceful crackdown, including military reinforcement and internet shutdowns.

In May 2022, GBAO residents staged a rally in Khorog, demanding the resignation of local officials and addressing grievances. Following authorities’ refusal to meet demands, clashes erupted between protestors and law enforcement, with accusations of armed attacks and counter-terrorism measures taken by the government. The situation escalated with allegations of foreign involvement and accusations of international terrorist support, leading to clashes in the Rushan district and calls from international organisations to address the situation peacefully.

In June 2022, after the protests of May, President Rahmon attributed military action in GBAO to foreign-financed terrorists seeking revolution. Nonetheless, the specifics of foreign involvement remain unclear. Foreign entities’ concerns seem focused on internal tensions and clashes in GBAO, rather than distinct foreign interests.

Geopolitically, Gorno-Badakhshan lies in eastern Tajikistan, bordered by China and Afghanistan. It shares borders with Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region – XUAR (China), Badakhshan province (Afghanistan), and other regions of Tajikistan. The area’s appeal to global and regional powers stems from its resource wealth, encompassing minerals, water, and natural gas.

The geopolitical stage has seen intensified rivalries between China and Russia. Beijing invests notably in GBAO’s infrastructure, exemplified by the Dushanbe-Kulma highway connecting Pakistan and Afghanistan through Tajikistan. The People’s Republic of China confirmed its interests in GBAO by announcing in October 2021 the establishment of a military base in the region with the purpose of monitoring local dynamics linked with neighbouring Chinese Xinjiang.

Russia maintains influence through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance involving several Central Asian nations, including Tajikistan. The CSTO bolsters Russia’s strategic presence, focusing on monitoring militant groups and collaborative military exercises. Recently, Moscow pushed Dushanbe to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) by exploiting the bilateral cooperation in defence, security, economy and social sectors.

Tajikistan adopts a multifaceted approach toward GBAO. Bolstering security through increased military and police presence, the government aims to counter local armed groups and limit their influence. Cross-border security, particularly with Afghanistan, is prioritised because of the lengthy and porous Gorno-Badakhshan border.

Economic and political stability is pursued via various avenues. Infrastructure enhancement projects, such as road and bridge construction, aim to integrate GBAO with the rest of the country and boost economic activity. Private investments, particularly in mining and energy sectors, present employment and revenue opportunities.

Despite these strategies, the government has faced criticism for employing harsh tactics to control the area. Arbitrary arrests, torture, and intimidation have been used to suppress resistance, particularly among the Pamiri people. The government’s actions have led to displacement, fear, and uncertainty among the population.

Economically, Gorno-Badakhshan grapples with challenges. Agriculture relies on traditional methods, hampering productivity. Mining, though resource-rich, is plagued by corruption and environmental degradation. The potential for tourism remains untapped due to insecurity and political instability.

Why does Emomali Rahmon’s visit to GBAO matter?

Emomali Rahmon’s visit to GBAO confirms the strategic value of this region and Dushanbe’s desire to fully control the area, contrast local disappointment, and boost the socioeconomic development.

The reconstruction of the Kalai-Khumb-Vanch road section as part of the project for the reconstruction of the Dushanbe-Kulma-Chinese border road shows Dushanbe’s commitment to transform Tajikistan into a transit country and link its territory with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Dushanbe has adopted accelerated industrialisation as the fourth strategic goal of the country, which, according to the Tajik government’s plan, should give a favourable foundation for ensuring the sustainability of the economy, creating new jobs, increasing the country’s export potential and competitiveness in the world market.

Based on the announcement of 2022-2026 as the Years of Industrial Development, it is planned to build 92 enterprises in the region. Only in Khorog in 2022, 11 new industrial enterprises and workshops were built and put into operation.

Despite the Tajik government’s efforts to enhance industrialisation and improve the local socioeconomic conditions in the GBAO, the region still experiences discontent among its residents. While various development projects have been implemented, local dissatisfaction persists because of the central authority’s firm control and governance over the local population. Imposing strict rule from Dushanbe has created tensions between the local citizens and the government, contributing to a sense of disenfranchisement and leading to occasional clashes.

President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to GBAO carries broader strategic implications beyond the domestic context. This working trip could be seen as a message to Tajikistan’s key partners, namely China and the Russian Federation. By showcasing a strong central authority and commitment to local development, Rahmon may intend to assure these strategic partners of Tajikistan’s stability and its ability to integrate Gorno-Badakhshan into broader economic initiatives such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative or Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.

Despite Tajik efforts, GBAO still has challenges to face which might discourage foreign investors and generate doubts among Dushanbe’s partners. Indeed, sharing borders with the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China and Afghanistan, GBAO is vulnerable to the influence of foreign actors and the spread of jihadist propaganda. The potential exploitation of local discontent by external forces raises concerns about the region’s stability and security, underscoring the complex challenges that Tajikistan faces in its pursuit of regional development and stability.

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