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Tajikistan is an impoverished, forgotten country on the borderlands of Afghanistan. The national museum proudly displays a pair of trousers from the Second World War, while the zoo houses two unusual display cages—one marked “kitties” and the other “dogs.” Technically sovereign, but master of nothing, this central Asian state is consumed by postcolonial entropy. An Islamist insurgency is mounting in the hills and a nervous, kleptomaniac elite is worried they could become the next Kyrgyzstan, where the violent ousting of an authoritarian head of state triggered ethnic pogroms.

The numbers are bleak. Over 70 per cent of Tajiks live in rural areas and the World Bank estimates that 53 per cent live in poverty. Almost a million Tajik migrants work in Russia, and in 2009 alone, according to the International Organization of Migration (IOM), 18 per cent of the working-age population migrated abroad.

The perfect place, then, for China to go shopping. On 14th January the Tajik Parliament formally ceded one per cent of national territory to China, hailing the move as a “success of Tajik diplomacy” in settling a long running border dispute. On 27th January the Tajik government officially permitted 1500 Chinese migrants to enter Tajikistan to till the soil in the east of the country. The Tajik government has failed to explain how this deal benefits the state.

As the Tajiks head to Russia in search of jobs, the Chinese are arriving in Tajikistan. In 2007 there were roughly Chinese 30,000 migrant workers in Tajikistan; by the end of 2010 there were an estimated 82,000. Beijing has sunk $4 billion into the country in recent years and engaged in ambitious road-building projects heading out to the West. Yet this does little to solve Tajikistan’s unemployment problem, as China sends its own citizens to implement these plans.

“The Chinese have won the great game for Central Asia,” a European diplomat told me on my last trip to Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. “Even though the Central Asians don’t like them, they will finish by liking their money.”

The poorest ex-Soviet country finds itself increasingly pulled in two geo-economic directions. Of its imports, 31.9 per cent are from Russia and 11.2 per cent from mostly Russian-speaking Kazakhstan, but 40.5 per cent of national exports go to China. The EU and US have no real economic presence her—in terms of trade this is a world without the West.

What is happening in Tajikistan looks like a model for wider changes in central Asia, with Moscow’s dominance declining as China extends its power beyond its own borders. Russia’s post-Soviet influence is still felt in central Asia, where Russian is still the lingua franca and Moscow remains a magnet for migrants. But post-imperial connections do not automatically mean power. And in 2009 the Tajik government formally scrapped Russian as an official language, a status which the Kremlin views as a barometer of influence.

The sense that China is reshaping central Asia is affecting Russian strategy in the region. In 2001 Moscow and Beijing (along with smaller central Asian nations) formed the Shanghai Co-Operation Organization (SCO). Anxious about American “hyper-power” after the invasion of Afghanistan, the organisation was founded to fight Islamic extremism, guarantee regime stability and check US influence—through an axis of convenience between the two post-Communist Brics.

But Russia tends to like organizations it can dominate—not ones where it is dominated. In what it imagined would be a triumphant SCO Summit after its victory over Georgia in 2008, President Medvedev was annoyed to discover that China opposed the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as sovereign states. He was horrified that during the forum the central Asian leaders, whom Moscow saw as allies and clients, discreetly lined up behind Beijing to resist Russian pressure. As a result, the Kremlin increasingly views the SCO as moribund.

The sense that “we no longer have the strength for the periphery” is palpable in political circles and is translating into two policies—a concentration on a core of ex-Soviet states that Moscow hopes she can still integrate within its Customs Union (Kazakhstan and Belarus, with the Kremlin holding out hope it can bully Ukraine in at a later date) and a less hostile, at times even flirtatious, attitude to the West. In late 2010 Putin suggested the idea of a “common economic space with the EU,” whilst Medvedev attended the Nato Summit in Lisbon, agreeing to enhanced co-operation.

Back in central Asia, the rise of China is a double-edged sword for local despots. Increasing trade and ties to Beijing gives them different trade options and pipelines that do not just go West, thus lessening their dependency on Russia. However, the increasing influence of the dragon on the doorstep of these fragile nations is hugely unpopular. During the Kyrgyz Revolution of April 2010, rioters made anti-Chinese speeches and accused the regime of “selling out the country” in exactly the same way the Tajik government has just done. Central Asian leaders will have to be careful when accepting favours and bowing to pressure from China—if not, they may face nationalist backlashes in their own main squares.

Ben Judah is a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

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