Russian expert views Moscow’s Central Asia policy

Text of report by Russian political commentary website Politkom.ru on 11 July

[Article by Aleksandr Karavayev, deputy general director of the Moscow State University Information Analysis Centre: "’Rakhmon’ and Problems of Russian Policy in Central Asia"]

The arguments about the cost of the rental and other expenses for the Russian base in Tajikistan (the 201st Gatchina twice Red Banner Russian military base and three garrisons: Dushanbe, Kurgan-Tyube, and Kulyab) have gradually but consistently reached crisis level. However, the sides are used to this. The end of last year was marked by the epic story of the detention of a Russian airline’s AN-72 transport aircraft. At the time the airmen already sentenced to 8.5 years for smuggling were essentially successfully exchanged for the son of a high-ranking relative of [President] Rakhmon, sentenced in Moscow Oblast for narcotics possession. Of course, the official Russian and Tajik stories deny the logic of this link. Nevertheless, "everything is understood."

Russian-Tajik military collaboration has always been described on two planes. The first has looked up-beat and even optimistic on the whole, the second obscure and tense.

Let us note that optimism is always inherent in propaganda and official information. But today people are not surprised that both descriptions are generated by the one and the same information sources. For instance, why were the media so surprised by the conflict over the cost of renting the base? Because many Russian editorial offices had received a signal from the Presidential Staff on the matter indicating some confidence that Medvedev had agreed on everything with Rakhmon during his visit to Dushanbe in September 2011. At any rate that was the picture the Kommersant journalists had. Yes, of course, there was Rakhmon’s verbal assurance that we would resolve all issues and that in principle Dushanbe accepted Moscow’s terms. But in the 20 years the Kremlin has worked with Rakhmon, or at least the past 10 years, having a verbal agreement means having nothing. And it is not only a question of the "wily and slippery" Rakhmon or of the even more slippery Karimov. In general, if you think about it, over the Putin period there has not been a single instance of an "easy" agreement on the question of Russia’s military presence on the territory of its strategic allies being extended without any problems. You only have to take the leasing of the Baykonur cosmodrome. The only exception is Armenia, for understandable reasons, and even with Yerevan there are hidden obstacles. Thus, the confidence of the Defence Ministry and the Kremlin that an agreement had been reached and that the protocol on the extension of the agreement on the 201st base’s deployment after 2014 would be signed on Russian terms in the first quarter of 2012 looks like negligence.

The positive side of the invoice has clearly weakened. Of what does it consist? Primarily it is the contract for the leasing of land for 49 years for the "Okno" near-space optical electronic tracking complex not far from the city of Nurek. The second element is of course the role of the base itself. The 201st base is a very large military establishment in terms of its numerical strength and also a very complex one, with understandable and highly necessary stabilizing regional functions. And in Tajikistan itself one can trace a highly positive assessment of its presence in the elite, not to mention ordinary citizens and business circles. Of course, there is criticism and even anti-Russian sentiments in a number of positions, but they bear no comparison with, for instance, Ukrainian debates on basing in Sevastopol – another very large Russian establishment which, however, is now second to its Asian counterpart in terms of military strength and regional influence.

The existing lease agreement was signed in 2004 for 10 years. Then, in August 2008, the sides, with evident ease, incentivized by the Georgian campaign, signed an agreement on the expansion of military-technical cooperation. Under the agreement Moscow acquired use of the Ayni airfield and modernized its aviation base (commissioned in late 2010). In addition we passed part of the 201st base weaponry to Tajikistan, and it seemed that Dushanbe had come to terms with the fact that it would remain a Russian Federation bridgehead many decades…

The third element which "weakened" the Kremlin. Where are they going to go, was evidently the thinking in Moscow. According to WikiLeaks documents, in 2006 Rakhmon had already been obliged to refuse Donald Rumsfeld’s request for the stationing of Americans in Tajikistan. Sources indicate that at the time Rakhmon cited his commitments to Putin. And the Americans became more firmly established in Uzbekistan. The situation seems similar now. Once again it is known via WikiLeaks that in 2009 Rakhmon yet again, as in 2001, offered his territory to the United States, but in the late 2000s Washington gave no coherent answer, clearly seeing the Uzbek "stopover" as sufficient.

Let us note, incidentally, that 2001 is extremely important for an understanding of the twists and turns in Central Asian lines. Just a month had elapsed after 11 September and President Karimov signed the 25-year agreement with Washington on basing at Karshi-Khanabad, later receiving something like $0.5 billion in direct and indirect dividends for it. It must be said that for Rakhmon, the successes of Uzbek policy (or to be more precise, Karimov’s policy) were in general an example serving as a guideline and even grounds for a certain amount of envy. Karimov can boldly slam the door in Putin’s nose, presenting him with a fait accompli by telephone. If he wants, he will turn one way, and five years later, if he wants, he will turn the other way. For a number of objective reasons, Tajikistan does not have that advantage. But after 9/11, Rakhmon was quick to try his luck in the new circumstances and suggested, in expectation of bonuses from such a major player as the United States, the use of the air base at Kulob airport. Nevertheless, at the time Washington chose Manas in Kyrgyzstan and Karshi-Khanabad.

As for the options for Dushanbe’s military deals with other players, like China or India, for instance, it is likely they are of little concern to Moscow. India’s military project with regard to the Ayni base is in general seen by a number of analysts as an option for strengthening the anti-American bloc in the region. It is likely that all this has become the background which for Moscow has obscured the real movements in Dushanbe. Otherwise Chief of General Staff Nikolay Makarov, in talking about suspending the funding for the development of the 201st base, would not have said: "Tajikistan has suddenly turned obstinate…"

It’s not suddenly! Back in 2009 officials in Dushanbe were arguing for raising the cost of the lease to $100-150 million a year and then, by 2010, as a bargaining point, a sum of $300 million was being mentioned. In addition, Rakhmon’s entourage has never once been heard to agree to the lease of the base for 49 years. A maximum of 10 years, and then only as five years plus an extension. It may be said that, strictly speaking, Russia has only gotten the "Okno" complex for nothing. In all other instances Dushanbe has demanded payment and various positions (one demand of this kind was the withdrawal of Russian border guards from the Afghan border, when Rakhmon was essentially handed part of the control over drug trafficking). Dushanbe is also demanding pressure on the Uzbeks over water and energy problems, which Moscow is not in a position to implement…

Rakhmon understands very well that, for all the substantial dependence on Russia (and in addition to receipts from immigrants, Russia accounts for 30 per cent of imports to Tajikistan, and the economy depends to a considerable extent on Russian suppliers for fuel and lubricants), the circle of players capable of paying and, which is more important, from whom money can be extracted has expanded considerably. He will avoid as far as possible a situation like that with the "Okno" complex, which has ended up in Russian Federation ownership. Hence this bargaining, when there are "suddenly" over 20 additional demands regarding the terms of the lease. Hence also this phrase from the Tajikistan defence minister directed at Serdyukov at a session of the CIS defence ministers to the effect that the Tajik side had not even read the Russian proposals.

Now Tajikistan will play a new game. As the Meykhana master said at the wedding in Astara: "Who are you? Goodbye" [REFERENCE to recent Azerbaijani song hinting at dissatisfaction with Russia].

The strengthening of Qatar’s positions in Tajikistan is very interesting. There is talk that the Arab kingdom, sanctioned by Washington, is specially expanding spheres of engaged cooperation with the Tajiks, including questions of Tajiks’ employment at Persian Gulf construction sites. I would not exclude a future scenario in which an Islamic monarchy like that in Qatar or Saudi Arabia starts to pursue its own policy in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Of course, today this looks unrealistic and even unexpected, but you must agree it is a fine theory. Are we really insured against such surprises?

Far longer-term players are also very well known, In June, China virtually out of hand gave Rakhmon $2 billion in credit. You recall that was the amount Moscow had promised to invest in the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric plant.

It is obvious that Beijing is drawing Dushanbe into its economic and political orbit, having begun in fact to reshape Central Asia. But this is taking place very slowly, like a python swallowing its prey, which at the same time could engage in a large number of very important current matters. Whether Rakhmon understands this in handing Beijing 1 per cent of the country’s territory in the high Pamir mountains, or whether, as is more likely, that future does not concern him, is of no importance. You cannot complain about what he does. That is how he sees things and that is the policy he pursues, a policy he understands, and Moscow will have to deal with that circumstance, forcing Tajikistan with carrot and stick to remain in the Russian Federation’s orbit.

The problem of Moscow’s Central Asia policy is that we have not put in place a mechanism for "carrots" (that is, there are no binding guarantees on foreign policy deals and no clear formulas for subsidies and dividends, only indirect, mediated formulas). Nor is there any clear force for the use of the "stick" (the levels of punishment and means of coercion have not been defined). For instance, there was the episode in January 2012, when Dushanbe asked Moscow to annul export duty on light petroleum products. It was a question of duty-free deliveries of 600-700 tonnes. Moscow had not tied this to the lease of the base, although in terms of lubricants and fuel Tajikistan is tremendously dependent on Russia: Because of the rise in the cost of gasoline and diesel, prices for food in the country have risen 60 per cent in two years.

It is believed that Tajik immigrants are the tool which could curb Rakhmon’s multidirectional pirouettes." But to be frank, Moscow has not really tried to use immigration policy. Of course, there have been purges and campaigns, and often there is mention in this connection of Georgia or of the episode involving the Rolkan Investments Ltd aircraft, when about 150 Tajiks were expelled. In my view, considering the imbalances in the distribution of labour forces in the sectors of the Russian economy, augmented by the demographic crisis, and also the lobbying by the owners of very big companies who use the Tajik and Uzbek cost-free labour resources, Putin will not resolve to act with regard to Dushanbe as he did with Tbilisi. And the stakes are different. The Russian market’s dependence on unskilled labour in the services and construction sphere is colossal. Thus we have virtually no specific instruments left for influencing Dushanbe’s policy. There are perhaps three manoeuvres in our arsenal.

The first is to try to construct a framework of overa ll interaction with the United States and China. In other words, to try notionally to share out spheres of influence in Central Asia. And to entrench ourselves correspondingly more firmly in those positions where we can still do something. It is obvious that this notional dividing line cannot pass horizontally across geographical territory, rather it will pass, with vertical twists and turns, through sphere of economic and sociopolitical influence on various circles and sectors through all states of the region.

The second political manoeuvre stems from the first – traditional investments. But there should be enough of them. They must be aimed both at the infrastructure (an example is the Rogun hydroelectric plant as a package with the project for the CASA-1000 electricity line) and at the development of domestic markets, the growth of domestic consumption, and exports to the Russian Federation. Here the task of Moscow’s "Asia policy" cannot differ from any other post-Soviet policy – a special institution and instrument is needed to engage in selecting targets, allocating funds, and putting in place guarantees of the safety of Russian investments locally. For instance, the idea voiced by FSKN [Federal Service for Control Over the Trafficking of Narcotics] head Viktor Ivanov for creating a Corporation for the Development of Central Asia is essentially not bad.

Here we must recall the project lobbied for by the Ministry of the Economy for a new Agency for Promoting Development in the CIS. But perhaps it is not worth procreating departments? It is enough to define the tasks and the funding for an updated Rossotrudnichestvo [Federal Agency for the Affairs of the CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation]. The agency traditionally has a broad base for implementing Russian policy, but it must be set in motion cogently. The problem is of personnel locally and of funding. Of course, all this is a separate discussion. But the fact that such a department is lacking is obvious.

Third, there is systemic political pressure. Rakhmon and Karimov must understand that Moscow has an arsenal of means for overthrowing them (even if these means do not really exist). And that threat should be permanent. This has become a commonplace theme, but it has not lost its topicality – Moscow has always needed to have a foothold in the opposition (any opposition, primarily the Islamic opposition). The example of the overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiev and Moscow’s highly significant quasi-participation in this process should be a deterrent. But Moscow instills almost no fear in its "eternally" ruling ally leaders.

Finally, there is a fourth element. One might pass this over in silence, given its total absence. But anyway. Where is Moscow’s Islamic policy? The only thing one can present, with a certain amount of irony, as a secular Islamic foreign policy is the rare trips abroad by Ramzan Kadyrov and by the Tatarstan president. That policy does not even exist in rhetoric. Russian Islamic education, Russian Islamic banking, and other social and practical forms of Russian Islam – all this has no authority in the world of Islam and virtually no representation. It is clear that there are no serious speakers on Russian Islamic values, nor is there actually a version of the ideology supported by the regime. But there is the positive practice of Islamic life in Russia, inculcated over several centuries, and noting the secondary position of Russian Islam by comparison with traditional Islamic centres will not add anything constructive. If we do not neglect this topic, with the necessary funding and orientation of education Russian Islam will be able to acquire an attractive face and become an instrument in foreign policy.

Source: Politkom.ru website, Moscow, in Russian 11 Jul 12

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