The Azerbaijani President’s visit to Tajikistan confirmed the interest of the two countries in close cooperation, even though for all their similarities, they also have certain differences.
In the current geopolitical situation, the pragmatic nature of this interaction may outweigh the various “buts” and prove to be very fruitful.
The official visit of President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev to Tajikistan took place against the background of aggravated relations between Baku and Tehran, while the “misunderstandings” between Tajikistan and Iran seem to be in the past. This is one of the visible “accents” of Aliyev’s visit to the Central Asian country, poor, but not lacking in natural resources, and, moreover, the only one that is not, unlike other states of the region and Azerbaijan itself, part of the Turkic world: the Tajik language belongs to the Iranian language group. If the Turkic commonality used to be considered a linguistic concept, it has acquired a political implication today. All the more interesting is Aliyev’s visit to Tajikistan, its nature and, consequently, the prospects of relations not only between Baku and Dushanbe, generally even and peaceful, but also the “bridges and links” stemming from them, which will be discussed below.
Here we will talk about the official aspect of the visit, which was preceded by a business forum of Azerbaijani and Tajik entrepreneurs of different “caliber”: it was attended by more than 200 representatives of the business world from both countries.
While it is usually not easy to draw specific conclusions from official information, we can still draw some. President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon emphasized that during the thirty years of Tajikistan-Azerbaijan diplomatic relations effective mechanisms of interaction have been built between the two countries, which is largely facilitated by close, trusting contacts at the highest level, “at the origins of which stood the outstanding son of the Azerbaijani people, my friend and senior colleague Heydar Aliyev, whose 100th birthday we will also be celebrating in Tajikistan next month. I always recall fondly our communication with this great statesman of fraternal Azerbaijan. At the most fateful time for the country, Heydar Aliyev became a truly national leader of his glorious people and led the country along the path of stability and development.”
Speaking about trade and economic interaction between Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, Rahmon acknowledged that it was unsatisfactory and did not meet the existing potential: the parties, the President of Tajikistan said, agreed to take urgent action to increase it. Indeed, Tajikistan-Azerbaijan trade turnover in 2022 barely passed the $6 million mark, accounting for 0.1% of Tajikistan’s foreign trade turnover, with about 95% of mutual trade coming from imports of Azerbaijani goods, mostly oil products.
Rahmon outlined business interests of his country in the areas of investment, industrial interaction, agriculture, transport, and fuel and energy. Tajikistan is interested in joint projects in the light, chemical and mining industries, in the production of construction materials, aluminum processing, cotton fiber, precious and semi-precious stones and metals. Apart from that, the parties “confirmed the interest in the participation of Azerbaijani companies in developing oil and gas fields in Tajikistan.”
According to Rahmon, his talks with Aliyev also focused on security issues, and the parties “have spoken in favor of strengthening cooperation in combatting international terrorism, extremism, drug and arms trafficking, cybercrime and other forms of transnational organized crime. We have discussed in detail international issues and the situation in our regions.”
One should think that this was, first of all, about Afghanistan, since Tajikistan is the most vulnerable from the perspective of its border being breached from Afghanistan; the Ukrainian problem and its impact not only on the Central Asian states; recent developments in relations between Iran and Azerbaijan; the situation in the Middle East with a reshuffling of the “cards” there.
President of Azerbaijan thanked his Tajik counterpart for his kindness towards the memory of Heydar Aliyev, who “together with Emomali Sharifovich Rahmon, stood at the origins of the formation of interstate relations between our countries and, in essence, laid the foundation for these relations. Today, the successful development of brotherly relations between our countries is the outcome of precisely that activity in the early 1990s, when both Tajikistan and Azerbaijan experienced great difficulties when public and political stability in our countries was disrupted, when, unfortunately, there was a civil war both in Tajikistan and in Azerbaijan.” Both President Heydar Aliyev and President Rahmon, the leader of Azerbaijan stressed, “did everything in their power to turn the page of bloodshed and put our countries on the path of development. And they succeeded.” Tajikistan and Azerbaijan are stable states today.
The President of Azerbaijan described the talks with Rahmon as “very productive” and said that the parties “have a clear idea of how to move forward”: “Specific instructions have been given in the transport and logistical sector and on issues related to industrial cooperation and investment projects. … I have no doubt that tangible steps will be taken soon based on the results of the visit.”
A very meaningful quote from Aliyev’s speech: “I would like to particularly note the solid foundation of our ties, namely cultural interaction. Our peoples have lived for centuries in an atmosphere of friendship and accord. We have always been friends, and it is no coincidence that Tajik culture is appreciated in Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijani culture is appreciated in Tajikistan. It is no coincidence that the monument to the outstanding son of the Tajik people, Rudaki, was created by the Azerbaijani sculptor Fuad Abdurrahmanov. In the 1960s, this monument was erected in Dushanbe. Another well-known Azerbaijani sculptor Omar Eldarov has created monuments to Ayni and Ibn Sina. So, this speaks volumes. To entrust the creation of a monument to the outstanding representative of the Tajik people to someone from Azerbaijan is evidence of great trust, friendship and brotherhood. We are also aware that the people of Tajikistan love and revere the great Azerbaijani poet Nizami Ganjavi, who was born, lived and left this world in his native Gandja.”
Officials of the two countries signed 14 new documents aimed at boosting cooperation between the two countries. The most important of them, indicative of the transition to a new level of interaction between the two countries, are: “Memorandum of Understanding between the Financial Monitoring Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Financial Monitoring Department under the National Bank of Tajikistan on cooperation in the exchange of financial intelligence information in the field of money laundering, related predicate crimes and terrorism financing”; “Action Plan for economic cooperation between the Government of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan until 2025”; “Roadmap on strengthening cooperation in the field of agriculture between the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Tajikistan for 2023-2024”; “Agreement in the field of investments, start-up promotion and entrepreneurship between the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the State Committee on Investment and Property Management of the Republic of Tajikistan”.
In short, the states of Central Asia in general, and Tajikistan in particular, are showing a growing interest in Azerbaijan, and vice versa, Azerbaijan in the states of Central Asia. But what was left behind in the official picture of the visit? A lot, it seems.
What is Tajikistan’s interest in Azerbaijan? Since Tajikistan is geographically in a kind of “appendix,” it needs to fit into the transport format of Azerbaijan and Türkiye, to facilitate access to the Caspian Sea in order to increase cargo flows, to provide a simpler and less expensive transportation route. But this requires funds, which Tajikistan does not have. The same applies to the development of its hydrocarbon deposits and fuel exports. Tajikistan’s subsoil is known to be rich, but the minerals lie deeper, which complicates the extraction process. And it is largely handled by Chinese investors, while global business is increasingly focusing on the diversification of partners and capital.
Enter Azerbaijan, which signed a memorandum between Tajikistan’s largest company, TALCO Aluminum, and the gold-producing Azerbaijan Mining Company.
Moreover, Dushanbe can clearly see that all Central Asian states are drawn to Azerbaijan for a variety of reasons, from military, technical and political to trade, economic and logistic ones. Tajikistan, the only non-Turkic country in Central Asia, finds itself on the sidelines of this process because of its strong attachment to Russia. In this context, it would do well to join the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), which also has an investment fund, small though it is ($1 billion), even though Tajikistan is a Persian-speaking country. And Baku could become the driving force of this process: Dushanbe has never had any issues with it, and the point of attraction is a common religion, Islam. Moreover, both countries have, if not identical, but still territorial problems: Azerbaijan with the Karabakh zone and Armenia, Tajikistan with Kyrgyzstan. Baku has never meddled in these problems, which probably earned Dushanbe’s trust. Tajikistan, in turn, has not made a single move as a CSTO member to undermine Azerbaijan’s interests, nor have other members of the organization.
Azerbaijan, presumably, is also interested in bringing Tajikistan into the OTS, because, in this case, “the circle will be closed”: all Central Asian states will be united in an organization in which Azerbaijan and Türkiye play an important role. No one knows how Iran will react to this prospect; the latter had some issues with Tajikistan in the past, but Rahmon resolved them rather quickly not to the detriment of his country’s interests. Now Iran has bigger issues with Azerbaijan, and how quickly those issues will be neutralized depends mainly on Tehran’s policy. But it seems that Dushanbe, despite its proximity to Iran or in defiance of it, is still inclined to integration processes with its closest neighbors, as well as with more remote Turkic states that are stronger than Tajikistan. This path is probably the correct one, particularly in terms of diversification of external relations: Tajikistan is currently a member of the defunct CIS, although it is also a member of two very important organizations, the CSTO and the SCO; Iran is also a member of the latter.
In short, for Azerbaijan, and through it, for Türkiye, a comprehensive entrenchment in Central Asia is of great, primarily political, importance. And now it is somewhat heated by the confrontation with Iran, amid which Aliyev has been able to show his ability to establish close relations with the only Persian-speaking country in the region and even demonstrate that through it he can diplomatically and innocently poke Iran: an agreement has been signed on twin-city relations between the Tajik city of Isfara and the Azerbaijani Shusha, which returned under Baku’s control as a result of the 44-day Karabakh war in 2020.
There is another aspect. Baku cannot remain indifferent to the fact that Tadzhikistan’s long border with Afghanistan is home to extremist organizations of various stripes. Consequently, this is a security problem not only for the Central Asian states, which at present are protected by the CSTO (which openly favors Azerbaijan over its own hapless member, Armenia), by Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as by Chinese bases in a pinpoint manner, but also the neighboring regions, such as Azerbaijan. Thus, the strengthening and development of relations with Dushanbe is not of little interest to Baku from this perspective as well.
To sum up, Aliyev’s visit to Tajikistan had geopolitical implications, including strengthening the role of the Organization of Turkic States (that is, Azerbaijan and Türkiye) in Central Asia; strengthening regional cooperation with a broad focus on the hydrocarbon and extractive industries; and developing logistics schemes.
We would venture to assume that Aliyev’s visit to Tajikistan made it clear to Iran that although linguistic unity has become political, it is still not a decisive factor in the relations between the countries and not a reason to abandon integration processes. We can also assume that Rahmon, in one form or another, will convey to the Iranian leadership that reducing tensions, including those artificially created between Iran and Azerbaijan, will benefit the IRI, both in terms of its security and relative peace and in the context of the development of trade, economic and other relations. But will Tehran hear Rahmon if such a conversation takes place?