"When you open an embassy in London it is a huge responsibility,” observes Erkin Kasymov, Tajikistan's first ever ambassador to the UK.
And Kasymov has scarcely had time to unpack his diplomatic bag - he only arrived in May in what can be seen as an exercise in increasing people's awareness of his country and boosting trade links.
“Frankly speaking,” says Kasymov. “Before September 11 the international community didn't pay enough attention to the region.” And they still don’t.
The day I went to do the interview at Tajikistan Embassy's tiny offices in West London, the war between Russia and Georgia was in full swing. There were reports of Russian troops getting ever closer to the capital Tbilisi. Tajikistan is another ex-Soviet state so it was interesting to get Kasymov's perspective.
“You know it is very old conflict which we have in that region and it is very difficult to make some comments,” he said, clearly determined to be carefully diplomatic.
No condemnation of Russia will be found here. The small Republic of Tajikistan is eager not to make enemies with any major world powers.
“We know the current tragedy happening in South Ossetia was initiated by Georgian forces and there has been a reply from the Russian forces but maybe it is not our competency to analyse who is guilty who is not,” Kasymov said. “What is going on in Ossetia is awful... They should come back to the negotiation table in order to find a peaceful solution. There was a very good proposal made by Mr. Bush to get back to the positions according to the situation on 6 of August. And there is a good proposal from Russia for Georgian forces to jump back to their positions before the clashes.” He urged all sides to stop the killing of people.
Tajikistan, with a population of close to a seven million, has a lot to offer a world deeply ignorant of it's rich history and exotic culture. Located just north of Afghanistan, the region was once a part of the grand Persian empire, a fact reflected even today in the Tajik language and in the customs and traditions of the people. Nowruz, or the Persian new year, is celebrated not just in Iran but in Tajikistan and Afghanistan as well. The capital city of Dushanbe derives its name, unusually, from the Persian word for Monday. This is because the Dari language spoken by Afghans is closely related – together with Farsi – to Tajik. But Tajik is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, a reflection of the country’s Soviet past, and not the Arabic writing system used in Iran and Afghanistan.
However, there have been recent calls emanating from certain quarters in Tajikistan to change the alphabet back to Arabic. This is, of course, easier said then done. Kasymov seems to think that now might not be the best time for such a change to happen, echoing the sentiments expressed earlier by the Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. “It is a very complicated problem [the language issue],” he says. “It is a question for the very far future."
Maybe, however, just maybe those calls to adopt the Arabic alphabet reflects a yearning in some Tajiks’s for their past, a longing to reconnect with traditions that belonged to their ancestors. “During Soviet period we were isolated from those countries [Iran and Afghanistan] and their people,” says Kasymov. “But now after getting independence …the situation is very different.” Today Tajikistan enjoys good relations with Iran and Afghanistan, both culturally and on a governmental level. In fact Iran was the first country to setup an embassy in Dushanbe in 1991.
Moving on to opportunities available for UK investors, Kasymov is keen to highlight the country’s vast production of cotton. “We produce huge amount of cotton,” he says. “But we only sell raw cotton. We cannot reproduce it into different materials such as suits and jeans.” Another area to look into is hydroelectric power production, says the ambassador: “We have good markets especially in Afganistan, in Pakistan and in Iran. They are ready to buy a huge amount of our electricity which might be produced in Tajikistan. Such projects are just waiting for investors.”
Tajikistan is also next door to China, specifically Xinjiang province which was the scene of last weeks deadly attacks in Kashgar which left 16 police officers dead. Kasymov expresses concern about the threat from growing militancy in China. “We claim such activity in China is not to the benefit of stability and that it has bad influence in other parts of the region.” However, he says, that his country has solved, to a degree, its own problems with Islamists. He is referring to a peace deal signed in 1997 with Islamists following a bloody civil war estimated to have left up to 50, 000 people dead.
He does, however, make a vague allusion to Tajikistan's neighbour to the west, Uzbekistan, where the government has run a fierce campaign against religious elements it claims to be a threat. “Such situations as in China or in other areas of the region may have an influence in other parts, in Uzbekistan for example,” says Kasymov in an ominous tone. “You should remember the events that took place in Andijan.” A reference to the infamous 2005 massacre in Uzbekistan where the security forces killed several hundred protesters, although some have claimed the actual figure to be in the thousands.
The grave security situation in Afghanistan also does not lend itself well towards developing stability in the region. In fact, Tajikistan faces a severe energy and food crisis. Another major issue the ambassador highlighted is the water shortage which plagues many Central Asian states:“If you do not have enough water you cannot grow any kind of agriculture. To solve this problem a joint regional effort is needed, there is no other way.”
In spite of all these problems, Kasymov appears optimistic and, indeed, enthusiastic for his country and his new role as ambassador to the UK. Especially on issues of business investment he appears particularly eager. He represents a country looking to the future.
“We have had the Arab invasions, the Mongol invasions. Hopefully we can overcome the Soviet period as well. However today we are a sovereign and independent country...Of course we brought many things from the history of those times,” says Kasymov. “But now the most important thing is to move forward and not what we left behind.”