Russia to Cede Control of Historic Border

This month marks the start of a phased withdrawal of Russian troops from the Tajik-Afghan border.

Russia to Cede Control of Historic Border

This month marks the start of a phased withdrawal of Russian troops from the Tajik-Afghan border.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

In a historic move, the authorities in Tajikistan are preparing for an end to Russia’s century-old control over the Tajik border with Afghanistan.


Some observers are already questioning whether the Tajik authorities are capable of holding the line on a porous frontier that is a major export route for Afghanistan’s narcotics producers. But some local officers and civilians expressed hope that the end of Russian presence would make life easier.


On May 12, Russian first deputy foreign minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov confirmed that Moscow was to withdraw its border guards.


“We are pulling out of Tajikistan,” he told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. “The result will be a porous border. Porous means drugs.”


The move does not mean Russia is ending its military presence in Tajikistan, since it maintains an army division that is separate from the border guards who will be leaving.


The handover was announced by Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov at his annual address to parliament on April 30. During his speech Rahmonov paid tribute to Russia, saying “in line with the agreement signed in 1993, the Russian border forces have served in our republic for ten years. During that time they played an important role in ensuring security for our country.”


“However, article 9 of the agreement specifies that our border forces will gradually take the entire length of the Tajik state border under their control.”


The Russian presence along the Panj and Amu Darya rivers which forms the border of what is now Tajikistan dates back more than a century, to the historic agreement of 1895 which formally drew the lines between the Russian Empire, the Afghan state and British India, building on an accord two decades earlier in which Moscow agreed not to push any further south.


The Soviet Union inherited the imperial border, but after it broke up in 1991, the new states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan opted to patrol their sections of the border. Instability and then civil war in Tajikistan meant that the Russians maintained a substantial security presence there, including its specialised Border Troops with their characteristic green caps.


At present Russia maintains an 11,500 strong force which patrols virtually the entire length of the 1,344 kilometre frontier, much of it winding through difficult mountainous terrain. The Tajiks look after only a tiny section, just over 70 km long, approximately half-way along the Afghan border. They also keep watch on the lengthy but more easily guarded border with China.


Lieutenant-General Abdurahmon Azimov, the commander-in-chief of Tajikistan’s border force, is upbeat about the prospect of a handover. “We are planning that in May of this year, the Pamir section of the border will pass to us. All the other sections will be transferred before the middle of next year.” The Pamir section is in Badakhshan in the south-east, and is the highest-altitude part of the frontier.


Azimov stressed that taking over the border did not mean excluding continued Russian involvement. “We don’t intend to give up completely the assistance of Russian border guards. We will retain them as advisers.


“In terms of increasing the number of Tajik border guards, we already have 3,000 servicemen preparing to shift from serving in the Presidential Guard to the frontier posts.”


An IWPR contributor who interviewed Tajik and Russian troops and local civilians on the border areas found that few believed Tajik units would find it easy to replace the Russian ones. The main concern was whether the Tajiks would have the personnel or resources to stem the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan.


Dodarbek Saidaliev, a conflict resolution expert from the southern city of Kulyab, said that he supported the handover in principle but was sceptical about whether the government would have the funds to do it.


“There should be no doubts here: any state is obliged to protect its borders using its own forces. But the question is whether Tajikistan is ready for this now, above all economically,” he said. “Proper and safe maintenance of the border requires considerable expenditure. And don’t forget that this is the border with Afghanistan.”


Saidaliev stressed that he worried more about drugs smuggling than aggression from Afghanistan. “One of the many routes used for trafficking Afghan drugs passes through Tajikistan, and that means an enormous amount of money,” he said.


The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention estimates that Afghanistan produced 3,600 tons of opium last year, six per cent up on the previous year. Russian and Tajik frontier guards seized almost six tons of heroin, the processed product, last year, and a smaller amount of raw opium, indicating the continued trend towards a rise in trafficking and a focus on smuggling the higher-value processed product. Some experts believe seizures represent only about a tenth of the amount successfully trafficked.


According to the head of the Russian border forces in Tajikistan, Major-General Alexander Baranov, “The situation on the Tajik-Afghan border remains difficult. The [United States-led] anti-terror operation in Afghanistan has not had an effect on opium poppy cultivation.”


Asked whether he thought the Tajik troops were ready to take over border defence role, Baranov refused to comment but added, “If they think they will cope, that is their right. The process of transferring the border segments has already been worked out.”


Some of Baranov’s subordinates were more candid about the state of the Tajik frontier force. A Russian staff officer stationed in Hamadoni district in the southern Hatlon region, who asked not to be named, told IWPR, “Tajik border guards don’t even have a single helicopter, something that is indispensable in the mountains. And in all other regards the Tajik servicemen are ill-equipped.”


This is alarming since the smugglers coming over the river are often well-prepared for a fight. United Nations experts say that drug traffickers earn huge sums of money – up to 1,000 dollars a trip depending on how much they bring into Tajikistan. To protect their goods they generally take a strong covering force of Afghan guerrillas who are well equipped with weapons, night-vision equipment, and even satellite phones, and they are not afraid of engaging in combat.


The Tajik authorities say the much-expanded force will draw on personnel currently serving in Russian units. Virtually all the conscripts serving in Russia’s border guards are Tajikistan nationals, as are seven out of ten of the “kontraktniki” – better-paid volunteers.


“Thousands of guys training in Russian border units will become available,” Lieutenant-Colonel Abdullo Halimov, head of military training at Kulyab university, told IWPR. “The difficulty will be in creating appropriate conditions for them, including the high salaries that they have become used to with the Russians.”


A conscripted private with the Russian troops receives 52 US dollars a month, while contract soldiers get 200 dollars and upwards, and non-commissioned officers, NCOs can earn more than 400 dollars. In the Tajik border guards, top earner Lt-Gen Azimov has an official salary of just 42 dollars a month.


Few people will want to join up for this kind of money and incur the risks of serving on a porous and volatile border. Saidaliev believes most will prefer to join the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who go to Russia for seasonal work each year, “It is easier to go to Russia to earn money, and if one is lucky, won’t get killed or contract any disease, they will return with money!”


A further problem is the Tajik border guards will have a much smaller pool of trained commanders to recruit from in the Russian force. Only seven per cent of commissioned officers and 17 per cent of NCOs in the force are Tajik nationals; most of the rest are likely to go back to Russia when the unit shuts up shop.


The cash-strapped Tajik government has drafted a plan requiring local officials to budget funds for border defences, and also to allocate plots of land so that food can be grown for the troops.


“I have to admit that we are on state subsidies ourselves, but we are ready to share everything with the border guards,” said Rozik Sadikov, the head of Shuroabad district’s local government .


Sadikov thinks things have to get better simply because in his district, the border is now divided between Tajik and Russian forces, making life more difficult for local civilians.


“When the issue who is boss on the border is resolved, it will be easier for us,” he said. “At the moment we are unable to use more than half of the district’s territory because it is under the control of the Russian border guards. Some areas are planted with landmines, and in some places the danger of Afghan raids means we cannot even grow grain, harvest the pistachio and fruit trees, or use the pastures for livestock.”


Amrokhon Nazarov, head of Yol, a community of 10 villages in Shuroabad district, believes that at the moment neither border guard force is in charge.


“We are surrounded by the border guards of two states, and at the same time we are absolutely unprotected. We get the impression that the border guards are either absent or, as our elderly men joke, they’ve locked the border and given the keys to the Afghans.


“At any time of the day and night, the Afghans roam around our villages, drive away our cattle in entire herds, take our people hostage, remove our property and even carry off the meagre grain harvest our people have grown at risk to their lives.”


Nazarov said that in the latest incident in April, Afghan smugglers seized 63-year old Khalil Jalilov and 66-year old Zoir Niezov from their villages, and drove off four cows as well. “How could the border guards miss the fact that they had crossed the border into Tajikistan, since all the pathways are well known?” he asked.


Rahmon Cholov, a retired commander of the Tajik border troops in Shuroabad district, complained of a lack of coordination between the Russians and their Tajik colleagues. “I was chief of staff of a border unit for seven years. There were strict instructions not to check the vehicles or technical equipment of Russian border guards,” he said.


Local police and security officers also complained of a lack of cooperation from the Russians. “We have no right of access to territory controlled by Russian border guards without a special permit,” said an officer from the Tajik security ministry based in Shuroabad, who asked not to be named. “Since the criminals don’t agree the schedule for their raids with us in advance, we are left unprepared to obtain the necessary papers.”


Many locals complained that Russian personnel were involved in drug trafficking themselves.


On May 5, Tajik security services detained an NCO serving as a medic in the Russian border guards in the Shuroabad area, accusing him of possession of 12 kilograms of heroin. They allege that the man has been involved in trafficking for years. Two weeks earlier, it was reported that another Russian border force NCO was detained while carrying eight kg of heroin.


The problem now facing the Tajik authorities is whether their own force can do any better, with fewer resources at its disposal.


Turko Dikaev is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.


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