Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tajik Land Giveaway

Border disputes are nothing new in international relations, but the government of Tajikistan recently came up with a pretty unique solution to an ongoing dispute with China – they just gave away a sizable chunk of their country. The Tajik government signed over more than 1,000 square kilometers (that's more than 400 square miles) of remote, uninhabited mountains over to China to finally establish the land border between the two nations. For their part, spokesmen for the Tajik government hailed the solution as a triumph of diplomacy, noting that the area is uninhabited and that the land given away was a small portion of the 28,000 square kilometers that China had wanted from Tajikistan – roughly 20% of the country's landmass. Sukhrob Sharipov, head of a government-related think-tank echoed the sentiment and wisdom of the deal, adding that had China decided to take the land by force, the Tajik military wouldn't have been able to stop them and that no one would have come to their aid.

Of course there's more to this story than meets the eye. First, it's hard to believe that China would actually invade Tajikistan over a minor border dispute, especially when they have similar disputes with Pakistan and India over the borders of the Kashmir region. It's also hard to imagine that Russia would stand idly by during a massive military intervention in their “near abroad” - the Russian term for the neighboring countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, places where they still feel they have a privileged level of interest. And while the land in the Pamir Mountains might be remote and uninhabited, they are believed to hold vast reserves of gold, uranium and other valuable minerals, something that impoverished Tajikistan could certainly use. Opposition politicians in Tajikistan, the few that there are, slammed the deal. Mukhiddin Kabiri, head of the Islamic Revival Party suggested the deal was unconstitutional since the Tajik constitution declares: “that the territory of the state is single and indivisible”; Tajikistan's Communist Party meanwhile said that the government “had left behind a huge problem for our descendants.”

But if the Tajik government even heard the protests over the land deal, they apparently decided to pay no attention to them. The following week the government approved a plan to lease a swath of land in the southern part of the country to 1,500 Chinese guest farmers to grow cotton and rice. That agreement sparked another wave of public anger. One Tajik interviewed by noted that there are already land shortages in the area surrounding the capital, Dushanbe; jobs too are in short supply in Tajikistan – hundreds of thousands of Tajiks migrate for work each year, with many heading to Russia, some not returning home for years, if ever. Some estimates are that nearly 80% of Tajik families have at least one member working abroad as a migrant laborer.

Economics likely play a large role in the Tajik government's recent decisions to be so generous with China, in recent years China has given Tajikistan $4 billion in foreign aid, including underwriting several major infrastructure projects. But some like Tajik sociologist Rustam Haidarov see something else at work. “It is China's strategy to resettle its people in different countries. It's China's policy,” he was quoted as saying in EurasiaNet. “They occupy slowly, cautiously. They realize their own goals in Tajikistan and affect our economic policy. In time this will lead to an influence in [Tajik] politics.”
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