Tajikistan: Talks on Russian Base at Impasse

Defence sources in Moscow accuse Tajiks of setting unrealistic conditions for Russia’s military presence.

Tajikistan: Talks on Russian Base at Impasse

Defence sources in Moscow accuse Tajiks of setting unrealistic conditions for Russia’s military presence.

Talks on the future of Russia’s most important strategic outpost in Central Asia have reportedly ground to a halt, with Tajikistan said to have set Moscow impossible terms.

Negotiations on a plan to allow Russia to establish a semi-permanent base in Tajikistan have dragged on for nearly five years. Few doubt that an agreement will eventually be reached – not least since there have been Russian troops in Tajikistan ever since it became independent in 1991, and the country remains heavily reliant on Moscow economically as well as for its security.

But the discussions appear to have reached an impasse. In what looks like a signal of Moscow’s irritation, an unnamed defence ministry official recently gave an interview to the ITAR-TASS news agency in which he spoke about the talks – whose content is normally a closely-guarded secret. The official suggested that the Tajiks were making unreasonable demands. “The Tajik authorities have gone so far as to regard all the Russian weapons, equipment and infrastructure located on their territory as their own property,” said the official.

Russia’s 201st Rifle Division – currently with a diminished strength of up to 6,500 men – has been in Tajikistan since Soviet times. Unlike the other Central Asian republics, the division was not converted into a national force but remained under Moscow’s control.

Although they were not significantly involved in Tajikistan’s five-year civil war, the troops were seen as a prop for the Tajik government at a time when its own military was weak, and the country surrounded by more powerful and not always friendly neighbours – Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

In 1999 the two countries signed a treaty under which the Russia troop presence was to be perpetuated in the form of a military base for an initial period of 10 years. But there has been little progress on the deal since then, though the 201st Division remains in place and no one is seriously suggesting they leave.

One of the main points at issue is how much money the Russians will have to pay for the use of the base. Russian media report that there is a second, more contentious issue - who has ultimate control of the troops.

The money issue may yet prove surmountable. A Russian officer who has been involved in the talks, and asked not to be named, told IWPR that Tajikistan is asking Russia to write off 600 million US dollars in debt. Moscow might just accept that, in the knowledge that given Dushanbe’s dire financial position it is unlikely to be able to repay the debt in any case. But he said that an additional request for 50 million dollars for the use of a site at Nurek, where the Russian military have a space observation facility, is too high a demand.

During the latest talks, it has been reported that Dushanbe is pushing for the right to exert control over the Russian troops – something Moscow will not countenance.

Russian sources report that Tajik negotiators inserted a clause in the draft agreement to say that, “under extraordinary circumstances, the Tajik president has the right to take command of the Russian 201st Division and use it to defend national interests”.

The officer interviewed by IWPR ruled this out, saying, “Russia has no intention of agreeing to Dushanbe’s claim to the right to use 201st Division’s mobile assets.”

It remains difficult to separate fact from rumour as reports of the talks seep out – and the allegation that the Tajiks want control over the troops may have been leaked to strengthen Moscow’s hand in the talks.

Tursun Kabirov, an independent political scientist in Dushanbe, thinks the Russian defence ministry’s comments were simply a tactic to exert pressure on Tajikistan. “The fact that on this occasion a pro-government news agency, ITAR-TASS, was used as the mouthpiece indicates that this is not just a fantasy produced by some journalists, but the official position of the Russian leadership,” he told IWPR.

The Tajik government has so far remained silent about the latest developments, and the defence ministry’s chief spokesman refused to comment on the Russian news agency report.

The dispute over the army base is only part of a web of complex and often troubled relations between the small Central Asian republic and the Russian giant. The themes of money and control have also appeared in a parallel set of negotiations that are going on about the future of the Russian border guards, a separate military force who patrol most of Tajikistan’s southern border with Afghanistan.

Although Moscow remains the major external player in Tajikistan’s tattered economy Russian firms have shown less than wholehearted enthusiasm for investing in critical infrastructure projects. And the position of hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrant labourers in Russia – who are often subject to exploitation, police mistreatment and deportation, remains a major bone of contention.

Russia’s decision last month to extradite a controversial former Tajik interior minister, Yakub Salimov, was seen as a concession to President Rahmonov – perhaps even a move to obtain a compromise in the negotiations on the military base.

Realistically, Tajikistan has few other partners it can turn to as a way of providing a counterbalance to its reliance on Russia.

It was one of the first countries to offer the United States the use of airfields as the “war on terror” got under way in Afghanistan, but the Americans took up offers from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan instead. Nevertheless, a Russian diplomat in Moscow who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR that President Rahmonov still tries to let Moscow know that – in the diplomat’s words – “I’ve got someone I can be friends with if you don’t agree to my terms”.

Sanobar Shermatova is a correspondent for Moscow News. Zafar Abdullaev, an independent journalist in Dushanbe, also contributed to this report.

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