The dragon and the bear on the roof of the world
A young foreman from a construction site queues at the SIM-card desk of the glitzy Tcell shop in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. He’s well-dressed, drenched in perfume, and trailed by three Chinese men, all eager to lay hands on their phones again.
‘I’ve learned Chinese to communicate with the construction workers,’ he says. ‘Most of them are from China.’ His nod to his colleagues is politely returned, but they seem more interested to learn about the status of their Tajik SIM cards.
‘If you don’t pick up a few sentences, you’ll have no idea if they’re badmouthing you behind your back,’ the foreman adds.
They are handed back their cell phones and immediately launch a frantic search for a WIFI connection. The foreman herds them out of the store and across the street to one of Dushanbe’s numerous construction sites.
It’s obvious the city is shedding its skin and undergoing a rapid urban facelift. The previous one started at the tail-end of the 1920s, after the Soviet invasion, when Russian architects and engineers transformed Dushanbe (‘Monday’ in Tajik) from a sleepy market town with 5,000 inhabitants into Stalinabad, ‘City of Stalin’. In 1961, with Tajikistan still 30 years away from independence from the Soviet Union, the name was changed back in a wave of de-Stalinization. Today Dushanbe is home to 863,000 people.
In a remote corner on the top floor of a shopping mall, some of the Soviet past’s heritage is being sold off at keen prices. Paintings of Lenin, Stalin and Yuri Gagarin. Soviet medals, propaganda banners and busts. ‘Mostly tourists come here,’ says the vendor, a man in his seventies. ‘Locals are interested in other stuff.’
Outside the mall entrance, a spacious constructivist-style avenue takes you to Dousti Square (‘Friendship Square’). It’s no longer called Lenin Avenue, but named after Rudaki, the late ninth century Persian poet and literary pioneer. As for the square’s Lenin statue – it was relegated to the backyard of the Art Fund.
A mere stone’s throw away, the fountain in front of the parliament building has become a sandpit: an indication of what awaits the complex which still bears the symbol of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. The Chinese Yanjian Group will construct a new Tajik parliament, the Chinese government’s third-largest aid project ever.
Tajikistan’s quest for an independent narrative has led to the large-scale demolition of cultural hallmarks such as the Mayakovsky theatre, the panoramic Jomi cinema and the Green bazaar, which hosted a bustling Sunday market. Some of its vendors have moved to Mehrgon, the new indoor market, but the vast majority have disappeared without a trace, driven out by higher rents. ‘At Mehrgon, everything’s much more expensive than it was at the old bazaar,’ laments a taxi driver. ‘You might as well buy cheap Chinese goods at minimarkets.’
Nearby neighbourhoods are due to be torn down to make way for high-rise buildings. One is a family-run hotel, situated along a picturesque back street.
‘We got a good deal, and I want out of this business,’ says the current manager. ‘It’s been many years of hard work and little rest. Now, let’s see what happens from here.’
Zones of influence
The outskirts of Dushanbe are covered with cotton fields, stripped after the harvest. Locals gather remnants of the crop that the machines missed and fill plastic bags. Heavy investment in industrialized cotton farming has led to large-scale environmental damage, disrupted freshwater systems and the destruction of more sustainable forms of agriculture.
‘After independence, when the Soviet collectivization system was dismantled overnight, land became a huge business and investment opportunity,’ says Askarsho Zevarshoev, a Dushanbe-based environmental consultant for the German non-profit PATRIP Foundation, which funds cross-border projects. ‘There was no land reform and all the subsidies that people relied on during the Soviet era were gone.’
It is but one sign of a rocky economy that has been hit by several blows since independence. First there were the ravages of a civil war lasting from 1992 to 1997 which claimed 100,000 lives, displaced a million people and laid industries to waste. The subsequent and ongoing migrant exodus to Russia has become the difference between life and death for numerous families left behind. In 2021 alone, over a fifth of Tajikistan’s total population crossed the border into Russia seeking work mainly within that country’s gig economy. This has given Moscow considerable political leverage over Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s long-ruling, authoritarian president. The threat that Russia could force Tajik workers to return is enough to make him exercise caution – as is also the undesirability of getting on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin.
Moscow’s regional influence, however, suffered a severe blow during the financial crisis in 2008, when the Russian ruble nosedived with a resultant financial tsunami devastating Central Asian economies. Tajikistan’s need for fast cash led it straight into China’s hands.
China seized the chance by granting loans that the Tajik government had no hope of paying back. It’s a geopolitical shift that may be visible in Dushanbe in the shape of its rapid urban facelift, largely paid for by Beijing. But it’s really far away, primarily in the eastern Pamir Mountains, that China collects the bill.
In return for a debt write-off, Chinese mining companies have been granted large concessions in ecologically delicate regions, where Tajikistan’s uranium and coal reserves have lain largely untouched since the fall of the Soviet Union. The most blatant example of China’s grip on Tajikistan is the 2011 handover of 1,158 square kilometres of ‘disputed territory’ in the Pamir Mountains.
The Tajik Pamirs lie in the autonomous region Gorno-Badakhshan. This vast mountainous area spans over 66 percent of the country’s total land surface, but is home to only a small fraction of its population – just 200,000 people. The best road leading there is the fabled M41, better known as the Pamir Highway.
Today it is in disrepair, but was once an impressive achievement when in the 1930s Russian engineers – in tandem with Tajik workers – brought infrastructure, electricity, health centres and schools to isolated mountain communities 4,000 metres above sea level.
Trucks, Chinese-imported minivans (often bearing fake Chevrolet logos) and jeeps take turns to pass the narrow slopes, where tricky bends dangle above the Panj River, marking the border with Afghanistan.
Historically speaking, it was here that in the nineteenth century, the Tsarist and British empires fought for domination over Afghanistan during the ‘Great Game’. Today, with the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent return to power, this area is of strategic interest to outside parties. It’s a geopolitical situation that could well establish three nuclear powers on Tajik soil.
Russia, which has maintained strong military ties to the former ‘Soviet colony’, is slated to pay for the construction of a new, yet undisclosed, border outpost. Meanwhile, the United States maintains a strong military presence in Tajikistan and will build another border guard outpost in the country, its thirteenth since 2002.
China has repeatedly dismissed any suggestion of stationed personnel in Tajikistan, but recently secured military access to another Pamir Mountain base, a former Soviet army outpost. This facility is owned by Tajikistan’s special forces, but paid for by Beijing.
From Alichur, a town with 2,000 inhabitants, mostly Kyrgyz livestock breeders, the distance to Dushanbe is four times more than that to the Chinese border. Here, the collapse of the Soviet Union is compared to a fallen curtain that no-one has bothered pulling up again.
‘In the Pamirs, people got together as a collective to make ends meet’, says Askarsho Zevarshoev. ‘Many isolated villages have been severely hit by the total lack of investment from Dushanbe since independence, and they’re basically left to take care of themselves.’
The potholed Pamir Highway splits Alichur down the middle. Large trucks rush by, en route to Dushanbe, with goods and construction materials destined for the numerous Chinese-run projects. Most set off from Kashgar, in Xinjiang, one of East Asia’s oldest cities and an important junction along the Silk Road.
One lies stranded with a flat tyre, about a 30-minute drive from Alichur. It tilts precariously on the sloping road. The plates and three drivers are Tajiks, but everything inside its red container is Chinese. Hailing a crowded minivan, one of the drivers asks: ‘Do you have any room to spare? We need to hitch a ride before it gets dark.’ They are tired, dirty and desperate. But when they realize there are no spare seats, they merely nod in quiet affliction. They might as well have been marooned on the dark side of the moon. The desolate stretches of the Pamir Highway are one of the conduits of China’s expansionist Belt and Road Initiative and the increasing traffic of Chinese migrant workers and trucks, albeit driven by Tajik citizens, isn’t well-received by locals, who consider themselves pawns in a modern version of the Great Game, now waged between Russia and China.
‘People aren’t too happy about the influx of Chinese goods and commodities,’ explains Askarsho Zevarshoev. ‘Tajik merchants and vendors, who make a living selling local goods, can’t compete with cheap Chinese brands.’
The stranded drivers extract cigarettes from a flattened and dusty pack and try to light them. Brisk winds kill their matches. ‘Are there any other trucks coming from Alichur?’ the driver asks.
Yes, there are, and with this news they return to their truck and lean over the open engine lid. They lift their cell phones towards the winter sky. It’s all in vain, there’s no signal out here.
This article was supported by the Pulitzer Center.