Tajikistan’s strategic significance grows as US and NATO prepare for 2014 Afghan pullout … while Dushanbe and Moscow hammer out the details of their military basing agreement

Eurasia Daily Monitor
July 9, 2012 — Volume 9, Issue 129

Tajikistan Seeks Shorter Term, Better Compensation For Russian Military Base

Tajikistan’s perceived strategic significance is rapidly growing, in anticipation of the US/NATO quasi-withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014. Tajikistan shares a 1,400 kilometer border with Afghanistan. That border and Tajikistan itself are an anti-narcotics defensive frontline opposite Afghanistan, the source of an estimated 90 percent of global opium and heroin production (Tajikistan being one of several way stations for Afghan drug exports). Conversely, Tajikistan forms a potential staging area and supply channel for anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan after 2014.

Across that border, a sense of kinship developed between Tajikistan and the Afghan Tajiks since the Afghan civil war of the 1990s and the formation of the Afghan “Northern Alliance” against the Taliban. At present, Tajiks form pivotal groups both in Afghan government forces and in a re-emergent northern alliance vehemently opposing the Kabul government’s overtures to the Taliban. If another civil war develops while outside powers play tribal politics again, the Afghan Tajiks with their Tajikistan connection will again form a resilient anti-Taliban front.

All this presages intensifying international attention on Tajikistan in the run-up to 2014 and after that watershed year. The United States provides technical assistance for the country’s border guard and anti-drug services. The US is likely to seek logistics corridors for operations in Afghanistan post-2014. Furthermore, Washington offers to include Tajikistan in “New Silk Road” projects for Central Asia and Afghanistan (Central Asia, Afghanistan and the New Silk Road: Political, Economic and Security Challenges Conference Report, Jamestown Foundation, November 2011).

India seeks to position itself in Tajikistan as a centerpiece of its new “Connect Central Asia Policy,” designed to outflank Pakistan and discourage negotiations with the Taliban. The Indian government almost certainly considers working with Tajikistan and the Afghan Tajiks again if necessary, as it did prior to 2001 against the Pakistan-supported Taliban. The Indian External Affairs Minister, S. M. Krishna, has just held talks with Tajikistan’s leaders in Dushanbe, probably considering such cooperation (Press Trust of India, July 3).

Russia wants to prolong the basing rights of its troops in Tajikistan by a further 49 years. Russia’s 201st motor-rifle division, stationed in Tajikistan since Soviet times, operated with the status of a “CIS peacekeeping” force until 1999. Russia and Tajikistan signed a bilateral agreement in 1999, ratified only in 2004, legalizing Russia’s military presence until 2014. Troops from this division are nominally assigned to the CSTO’s Rapid Deployment Forces. Renamed the 201st Military Base, this is Russia’s largest ground-force presence abroad. Its 7,000 troops are garrisoned in and near Dushanbe and the southern towns of Kulob and Qurghonteppa.

Additionally, the Russians seek long-term use of the Ayni airfield (in Dushanbe’s vicinity), renovated by the Indian military as part of its “outflank Pakistan” strategy. Tajikistan is negotiating with Russia officially on this issue while presumably discussing it with India unofficially.

In September 2011, Russia’s then President Dmitry Medvedev visiting Dushanbe demanded a 49-year extension of Russia’s basing rights, from spring 2012 onward (a deadline already missed). By way of compensation,

Medvedev offered arms supplies at discounted prices and education for Tajikistanis free-of-charge in Russian military schools. The 49-year timeline is the same as Medvedev obtained for Russian troops in Armenia and the Russian naval fleet in Ukraine in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

The ongoing negotiations over basing rights are increasingly tense. Dushanbe seeks to minimize the prolongation period and to maximize the Russian compensation. In February of this year (2012), Tajikistan’s ambassador in Moscow, Abdulmajid Dostiev, publicly alluded to $300 million in compensation. He did not specify the time-frame; but this would obviously have been shorter than 49 years, since the total sum would have worked at merely $ 6 million annually on a 49-year period. No country in the world grants basing rights without compensation, the ambassador declared (apparently forgetting Armenia, which not only gave up any compensation but even pays itself for the privilege) (RFE/RL, February 28).

Moscow’s patience seems to be running short after missing the Medvedev-stipulated deadline (see above). On June 26, the Commander-in-Chief of Russia’s Ground Forces, Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin, declared that Tajikistan is creating “many problems that put the 49-year extension at risk.” Addressing the Russian Federation Council’s Defense and Security Committee, Chirkin speculated about future military conflicts over energy, water and land use among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, by way of buttressing the case for Russian long-term basing rights (RIA Novosti, June 26). Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry responded with a statement describing Chirkin’s position as “groundless” and “unhelpful,” and chiding him for going public instead of using regular channels (Asia-Plus, July 2).

On July 3 and 5, the Chief of Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, General Nikolai Makarov, upped the ante. Citing the missed deadline, Makarov declared that the Defense Ministry is suspending funding for infrastructure development at the 201st Base because “the negotiations are proceeding with difficulty […] Tajikistan is digging its heels in” (Interfax, July 3, 6). Chirkin went public again, this time alluding to “more than 20 demands by Tajikistan, most of which we find unacceptable.” Thus, Dushanbe attempted to limit the basing rights’ extension to ten years, then conceded longer periods, but still far less than 49 years. Moreover, Dushanbe seeks financial compensation for basing rights and some military hardware free of charge. Chirkin characterized this as “oriental haggling with no end in sight” (Interfax, July 3, 5).

On July 5, Defense Ministers Anatoly Serdyukov and Sherali Khayrulloev discussed this issue on the sidelines of a CIS defense ministers’ meeting in Kaliningrad. At the concluding press conference, Khayrulloev polemically stated that Dushanbe would prepare its proposals without first reading Russia’s latest proposals on the troop-basing agreement. “It should have been read,” Serdyukov retorted. He insisted that the financial terms would remain as they presently are (i.e., practically nil in Dushanbe’s view), and that military assistance (presumably meaning arms supplies) is an unrelated issue, not envisaged as part of compensation for basing rights (Interfax, Asia Plus, July 5, 6).

On the following day, the working group tasked with preparing an agreement was upgraded from the expert level to the governmental level. At least from the Russian side, the working group is expected to reach agreement by October (Itar-Tass, Interfax, July 5, 6).

Dushanbe evidently does not regard the current situation in Afghanistan as necessitating a prompt or unconditional signing of the troop-basing agreement with Russia. The Tajikistani side will probably sign in the end in order to gain some compensation, rather than not signing and gaining nothing while Russia troops remain stationed in the country anyway (Asia-Plus, July 4). However, Dushanbe’s trust in Moscow has been dissipating for some time and now seems at an all-time low.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan has successfully prevented a return of Russian border troops to the Tajikistani-Aghan border. Under a bilateral agreement, finalized in 2005, Russia transferred to Tajikistan the responsibility for protecting that border. Russia’s Border Protection Service only retained a small advisory group in Tajikistan, while the US provided high-value technical assistance for border protection. Last year, Russia sought Tajikistan’s consent on the return of some Russian personnel to that border. Ultimately, the agreement signed in September 2011 and ratified by both sides in February 2012 (Interfax, February 29) basically confirms the existing arrangement for a Russian advisory group.

Tajikistan has substantially diversified its external security relationships in recent years. Its exclusive reliance on Russia is a thing of the past. This diversification process is likely to intensify, with Tajikistan becoming an increasingly useful partner in managing the situation in Afghanistan during the US/NATO withdrawal until 2014, and even more so after that turning point. Thus, Dushanbe can gain confidence and try to hold its own in negotiating with Moscow.

–Vladimir Socor

Russian, Tajikistani Officials Diverge On Progress Made In Base Talks

As talks continue over the extension of Russia’s use of a military base in Tajikistan, the Central Asian country’s envoy to Moscow suggests that the two countries have reconciled their positions on all parameters of a new lease except its duration. Speaking to the media on June 29, Abdulmajid Dostiev acknowledged that the finalization of the new deal is held back only by disagreements over how long Tajikistan will host the Russian base under the lease. Moscow insists on extending its basing rights in the country for the next 49 years, arguing that a long-term arrangement is needed to secure funding for the development of the facility. The government in Tajikistan, in contrast, seeks to limit the new lease to ten years or less. Yet, according to the diplomat, Dushanbe and Moscow are now “very close” to a new base deal (ozodi.org, June 29).

Dostiev’s remarks came in response to Russia’s Ground Forces Commander, Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin’s announcement that negotiations with Tajikistan over the future of the base have reached a deadlock. Speaking at the Russian parliament on June 26, Chirkin blamed Dushanbe for the stalemate: “Tajikistan has demands that are absolutely impossible to meet; [they] run counter to our proposals. We are now facing a situation from which there might be no way out whatsoever.” The Russian general admitted that the major point of contention had to do with the duration of the new lease, with Tajikistan unwilling to agree to the 49-year arrangement favored by Moscow. Chirkin has also suggested that unless the two countries find a way out of the deadlock, the Russian troops might vacate their garrisons in Tajikistan after the current lease expires in 2014. Echoing Chirkin’s statement, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that it had stopped funding the development of the base pending the outcome of “difficult talks” with Tajikistan (gazeta.ru, regnum.ru, June 27; interfax.ru, July 3).

The Russian general has also proposed that Dushanbe benefits more than Moscow from the latter’s military presence. Chirkin warned that disagreements over energy, land and water distribution might eventually lead to armed conflicts involving Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to Chirkin, the Russian troops based in Tajikistan would serve as a “guarantor of stability and security in the region” if such conflicts erupt. Russian officials and experts have made similar claims before, pointing to rising political tensions within Tajikistan and the uncertainties surrounding Afghanistan’s post-2014 future as major security threats that Dushanbe would not be able to tackle without Russia’s assistance (ria.ru, June 26; news.tj, avesta.tj, June 28).

Chirkin’s statements have drawn criticism from Tajikistan. The country’s Ministry of Defense has described the statements as “politically incorrect” and advised that all disagreements related to the new base deal be left to diplomats. Media and independent experts in Tajikistan have suggested that the Russian general’s remarks amounted to “blackmail” (news.tj, June 28, July 2).

At the same time, officials from within Tajikistan’s negotiation team admitted that Dushanbe is reluctant to sign a long-term lease with Moscow. According to these officials, the government in Tajikistan views Russia as an unreliable partner, which has reneged on major bilateral agreements and has been unwilling to help Dushanbe improve its strained relations with Uzbekistan, despite claiming to be Tajikistan’s “strategic ally” and “security guarantor.” Therefore, Dushanbe is keen to keep the duration of Russia’s renewed base lease under ten years to have room for political maneuver if Moscow remains an undependable ally (ozodi.org, July 1, 2).

The statements made by Dostiev and Chirkin indicate that the two countries have been able to overcome their differences over the issue of rent payment for the base. Dushanbe previously insisted that Moscow should pay for deploying its troops in Tajikistan, with media speculating that the payments could be as high as $300 million annually. Although Tajikistani officials have never explicitly confirmed these speculations, Dostiev asserted in February that “not a single country in the world today would give up the smaller plot of its land for free” (see EDM, March 7).

This still remains Tajikistan’s official position, with Dostiev mentioning vaguely on June 29 that, “nobody gives anything to anybody without getting something in return.” Yet, the price tag for the base in Tajikistan is only likely to increase now that Uzbekistan has pulled out of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and is reportedly considering hosting a US base on its territory (ozodi.org, vedomosti.ru, June 29).

Russia, however, has sought to negotiate a new lease with Tajikistan without committing to any rent payments. Moscow is the largest source of technical-military and economic assistance to Tajikistan. Russian diplomats have proposed that this assistance should be increased and should count as rent (see EDM, March 7). Apparently, Dushanbe has now agreed to such an arrangement and is insisting on a shorter base lease to see whether Moscow will prove as generous as it claims to be.

With about 7,000 troops stationed in Dushanbe, Kulob and Qurghonteppa, the base in Tajikistan is Russia’s largest ground force deployed abroad. Moscow has also sought to lease the Indian-renovated Ayni air base near the Tajikistani capital, but Tajikistan made it clear that Russia would have to pay to use the facility (see EDM, February 9, 2011). Based on regional developments – such as Uzbekistan’s exit from the CSTO and the efforts by outside powers, including China, India and the United States, to gain greater access to Central Asia – Tajikistan is thus attempting to walk a fine line between maintaining the financial and security benefits it draws from Russia’s continued presence on its territory, as well as trying to diversify its options for security partnerships beyond Moscow. Whether Dushanbe will succeed in striking the right balance will depend not only on Tajikistan’s diplomatic maneuvering, but also on Moscow’s ability to retain political dominance over a region that is increasingly opening up to the rest of the world.

–Alexander Sodiqov

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