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Russian Army Camp in Tajikistan Planned
Plans to establish a Russian military base in Tajikistan were approved by the State Duma last week, feeding speculation that the Kremlin is attempting to tighten its grip on the entire Central Asian region.
But the move also reflects Moscow's concern over Islamic activity in the former Soviet republics and the growing power of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The initiative dates from an agreement signed between Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov and Boris Yeltsin in April 1999. It was ratified by the Russian State Duma on February 21.
It is thought the base will house around 6,000 troops from the 201st Motor Rifle Division, which served in a peacekeeping role during the Tajik civil war.
The division lost its peacekeeping mandate in June 1997 when a ceasefire was agreed between the government forces and the United Tajik Opposition, UTO. However, the troops remained on Tajik territory in the aftermath of the fighting, despite a legal question mark over their continued presence there.
A Russian military expert, who asked not to be named, told IWPR, "Now the Russian military contingent's status is defined by law and it can legally be stationed on Tajik territory."
It is not yet clear how long the base will remain in Tajikistan. Initially, a period of 20 years was mooted but other sources suggest the agreement is for 10 years with the option to extend this time-frame with the mutual consent of both sides.
It seems likely that the 201st Division will occupy existing barracks in Dushanbe since President Rakhmonov will be eager to have the troops close to hand and Russia is unlikely to foot the bill for alternative accommodation outside the capital.
The expert in Russian military affairs believes the move has been prompted by the recent Taliban victories in Afghanistan. "Russia needs a military presence in Tajikistan since the threat posed by the Taliban movement is very real," he said.
There was, he added, a genuine possibility that extremist forces in Afghanistan would stage an incursion into Tajikistan or other Central Asian states and sweep towards Russia's southern borders.
Russia had also been alarmed by the outbreaks of fighting in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan over the past two years. The armed forces of both republics had proven ill-prepared to repel incursions by small units of well-armed guerrillas from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.
The expert said both countries had appealed to Moscow for military support and, although no Russian troops had taken part in previous operations, forces based in Tajikistan would almost certainly be called upon to thwart any future raids.
He went on to say that President Rakhmonov's authority in Dushanbe relied heavily on the support he enjoyed in Moscow. "The Tajik president is still in a weak position and there is always the possibility that opponents of the current regime will attempt to stage a coup d'etat," he explained.
Nearly four years after the civil war ended in Tajikistan, Rakhmonov is still nervous of the UTO leaders who are unhappy with the division of power. He is also haunted by the spectre of Colonel Makhmud Khudoiberdyev, who attempted to overthrow the government in 1997 and 1998.
The Tajik security services believe Khudoiberdyev is currently hiding in neighbouring Uzbekistan where he is thought to be planning another coup.
The expert concludes, "Only the Russian military can really help Rakhmonov hold on to his job. They certainly won't allow the pro-Uzbek Makhmud Khudoiberdyev to seize power in Tajikistan to say nothing of the UTO extremists. Russia can cool down a lot of hot heads."
A Russian military presence in Tajikistan is likely to be felt across the Central Asian region. Uzbekistan is fiercely opposed to the move since it wielded considerable influence over Tajikistan during the Soviet era and now resents Dushanbe's "defection". And, as soon as it became clear that Russia and Tajikistan were considering military cooperation, Tashkent raised the possibility of inviting NATO to establish bases on Uzbek territory.
However, the expert believes that, while the threat of the IMU continues to hang over Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov may have to come to terms with Russia's geopolitical ambitions and even appeal for military support in the event of a national emergency.
Vladimir Davlatov is a regular IWPR contributor
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