China and Russia on the roof of the world in Tajikstan

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China and Russia on the roof of the world in Tajikstan

Tajikistan is short of money but politically important, and it is changing quickly with its future shaped by a power play between China and Russia. Klas Lundström writes.


A shopkeeper in Dushanbe with his Soviet items for sale.

Credit: Fredrik Lerneryd

A young worker, a foreman, from a construction site queues at the SIM-card desk of the modern Tcell shop in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. He’s well-dressed, wearing lots of perfume, and followed by three Chinese men. They all want to get their phones back again.

‘I’ve learned Chinese to talk with the construction workers,’ he says. ‘Most of them are from China.’ He and his co-workers nod to each other politely but they seem more interested to learn about Tajik SIM cards.

‘If you don’t learn a few sentences, you have no idea if they’re saying bad things about you,’ the young foreman says. They get back their mobile phones and immediately look for a WIFI connection. The young foreman takes them out of the shop and across the street to one of Dushanbe’s many construction sites.

A city changing

It’s clear that the city is changing quickly. The last big change started at the end of the 1920s, after the Soviet invasion. Then Russian architects and engineers changed Dushanbe (‘Monday’ in Tajik) from a sleepy market town with 5,000 inhabitants into Stalinabad, ‘City of Stalin’. In 1961, Tajikistan was still 30 years away from independence from the Soviet Union, and they changed the name back. Today Dushanbe is home to 863,000 people.

In a corner on the top floor of a shopping mall, they are selling things cheaply from the Soviet past. Paintings of Lenin, Stalin, and Yuri Gagarin, Soviet medals, propaganda banners, and busts. ‘Mostly tourists come here,’ says the shopkeeper, a man in his seventies. ‘Local people are interested in other things.’

Outside the mall entrance, a wide avenue takes you to Dousti Square (‘Friendship Square’). It’s no longer called Lenin Avenue, but named after Rudaki, the ninth century Persian poet and writer. They moved Lenin’s statue from the square to the backyard of the Art Fund.

Nearby, the fountain in front of the parliament building is now a sandpit. This is a sign of what will happen to the buildings as it still has the symbol of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. The Chinese Yanjian Group will build a new Tajik parliament, the Chinese government’s third-largest aid project ever.

Tajikistan’s need for independence led to the demolition of cultural buildings such as the Mayakovsky theatre, the Jomi cinema, and the Green bazaar with its busy Sunday market. Some of its market sellers moved to Mehrgon, the new indoor market, but most of them left because of the higher rents. ‘At Mehrgon, everything’s much more expensive than at the old market,’ says a taxi driver. ‘You can buy cheap Chinese goods at minimarkets.’

Nearby, neighbourhoods will have new high-rise buildings. One is a family-run hotel, in a pretty back street. ‘We got a good deal, and I want to leave this business,’ says the manager. ‘It was many years of hard work and so little rest. Now, let’s see what happens now.’


Goats wait to go to feed in Alichur, with its mostly Kyrghyz goatherders in the Pamir mountains.

Credit: Fredrik Lerneryd

Influences of China and Russia

There are cotton fields outside Dushanbe, stripped after the harvest. Local people pick up the rest of the cotton crop the machines missed and they fill plastic bags. Big investment in industrialized cotton farming has led to a lot of environmental damage, disrupted freshwater systems, and the destruction of more sustainable agriculture.

Askarsho Zevarshoev is a Dushanbe-based environmental consultant for the German non-profit PATRIP Foundation. It finds money for cross-border projects. He says, ‘After independence, when the Soviet system changed, land was then a big business and investment opportunity. There was no land reform and no subsidies people relied on during the Soviet time.’

It is only one sign of a weak economy after many problems since independence. First there was a civil war 1992 to 1997 when 100,000 people died, a million people had to move, and industries suffered. Then when so many people left to go to Russia, it meant the difference between life and death for a lot of families left behind. In 2021, over a fifth of Tajikistan’s population crossed the border into Russia to find work mostly in the country’s gig economy. This gave Moscow a big political advantage over Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s authoritarian president. The threat that Russia could force Tajik workers to return is enough to make him careful. And he doesn’t want to make Vladimir Putin unhappy.

But Moscow’s influence suffered a serious problem during the financial crisis in 2008, when the Russian ruble lost its value and devastated Central Asian economies. Tajikistan’s need for fast cash led it straight into China’s hands.

China took the opportunity and gave loans to the Tajik government what it had no hope of paying back. It’s a geopolitical change we can see in Dushanbe with its quick city reconstruction, mostly paid for by Beijing. But it’s really far away, mostly in the eastern Pamir Mountains, that China collects the money.

In return for them forgetting about the debt, Tajikistan gave Chinese mining companies big concessions in ecologically delicate regions. No one has mined Tajikistan’s uranium and coal since the fall of the Soviet Union. The biggest example of China’s power in Tajikistan is the handover, in 2011, of 1,158 square kilometres of ‘disputed territory’ in the Pamir Mountains.

The Tajik Pamirs are in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan. This big area full of mountains is over 66 percent of the country’s land, but it has a very small population – just 200,000 people. The best road leading there is the M41, the Pamir Highway.

Today road needs repairing. But once, in the 1930s, Russian engineers with Tajik workers brought infrastructure, electricity, health centres, and schools to the isolated mountain communities 4,000 metres above sea level.

Trucks, Chinese-imported minivans, and jeeps pass the narrow roads with their difficult bends above the Panj River, marking the border with Afghanistan.

It was here that in the nineteenth century, the Tsarist and British empires fought for Afghanistan. Today, with the US troops leaving Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power, this area is of political interest. It’s a geopolitical situation that could have three countries with nuclear power on Tajik soil.

Russia has strong military links to the former ‘Soviet colony’, and will pay for the construction of a new border post. And the United States has a strong military presence in Tajikistan and will build another border guard post in the country, its thirteenth since 2002.

China has said it doesn’t want army personnel in Tajikistan, but recently got military access to another Pamir Mountain base, it was a Soviet army post. Tajikistan’s special forces own it but Beijing paid for it.


One of many Chinese-funded construction sites in Dushanbe.

Credit: Fredrik Lerneryd

Lost road

Alichur is a town with 2,000 inhabitants, mostly Kyrgyz breeders of goats. From Alichir to Dushanbe the distance is four times more than to the Chinese border.

‘In the Pamirs, people got together to make enough money’, says Askarsho Zevarshoev. ‘Many isolated villages had no investment from Dushanbe since independence, and they have to take care of themselves.’

The Pamir Highway runs down the middle of Alichur. Big trucks rush by, on their way to Dushanbe, with goods and construction materials for the many Chinese projects. Most leave Kashgar, in Xinjiang, one of East Asia’s oldest cities and an important junction along the Silk Road.

One truck has a flat tyre, about a 30-minute drive from Alichur. The truck’s number plates and three drivers are Tajiks, but everything inside is Chinese. They stop a crowded minivan, and one of the drivers asks, ‘Do you have any room? We need a ride before it gets dark.’ They are tired, and dirty. But when they see there are no empty seats, they just nod quietly and sadly. For them it is like being on the dark side of the moon.

‘People aren’t too happy about all the Chinese goods arriving,’ says Askarsho Zevarshoev. ‘Tajik merchants and vendors, selling local goods, can’t compete with cheap Chinese brands.’

The drivers take out cigarettes from a flat and dusty pack and try to light them. 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. They lift their mobile phones to the winter sky. But there is no signal out here.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)