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Tajikistan: Verbal Skirmish With Moscow

Suggestions that Russia should withdraw its border force from Tajikistan are more about money than geopolitics.
By Nargis Zokirova

A recent outburst from Tajikistan over the issue of Russian guards protecting its frontier with Afghanistan appears to be a move to force a better deal in negotiating their stay, rather than to get them to leave.


The dispute began on September 19, when the deputy head of the Tajik government’s committee for border defence, Nuralisho Nazarov, told journalists that Tajikistan was more than capable of guarding its own southern frontier without help from Moscow, and hinted that Russia should withdraw its border guards.


He accused the Russians of failing to provide any patrols on a 100-kilometre section of the border. Meanwhile, another border guard official who did not want to be named told IWPR that the Russians were failing to hand arrested drug runners over to the Tajik authorities.


A ten-year agreement between Russia and the former Soviet republic, under which Moscow undertook to patrol the long border with Afghanistan, expired in May this year, and the two sides have been dragging their heels over renewing it.


Tajikistan currently has a small force of frontier troops who patrol just 73 out of 1,350 kilometres of border. Russia’s contingent of 11,000-plus looks after the rest. It is difficult to imagine how the Tajik troops – funded out of a cash-strapped government budget – could simply take over.


Nazarov’s remarks caused a stir, with speculation about an attempt by Tajikistan to break away from Moscow’s embrace. The traditionally close relationship between the two countries has been rocked recently by angry exchanges about the mistreatment of Tajik migrant workers in Russia.


However, the most likely explanation is a little more mundane – money. Analysts believe that the official’s comments were probably a tactic designed to jolt Moscow into agreeing to and bring the frontier treaty back to the attention of Russian officials.


“The whole thing is a political game in which Dushanbe wanted to send Moscow a political message,” a Moscow-based Central Asia analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR. “Tajikistan has being trying to renew the border agreement with Russia on terms that are more favourable to itself.”


The analyst explained that the way the message was delivered was typical, “Usually, whenever the Tajik government wants to test Moscow’s reaction it doesn’t do so directly, in an official statement. That’s why the initial comments came from a relatively low-ranking official in the border guards.”


Because Nazarov’s off-the-cuff remarks did not constitute an official statement, the Russian government was not required to react, noted the analyst. Apart from critical comments made by the head of parliament’s defence committee, Moscow remained mostly silent on the issue. Russian border guards spokesman Alexander Kondratev refused to comment, telling IWPR that “this issue should be solved at government level”.


The suggestion that the comments were a tactical ploy was reinforced on September 25, when Tajik deputy prime minister Saidamir Zukhurov distanced himself from them, insisting that the official view was that Russian frontier troops should stay on. Nazarov himself later played down his own statement, and coolly accused the Russian media of “making a big deal out of it”.


Observers in Dushanbe told IWPR that resolving the border issue is crucial for both countries. But the Tajik government clearly wants to extract the best deal it can.


When the agreement was signed in 1993, Tajikistan was bogged down in a civil war in which opposition guerrillas frequently sneaked in and out of Afghanistan. That ended in 1997, but until the Taleban militia were dislodged from north-east Afghanistan in late 2001, there was always a theoretical danger that the Afghan conflict would spill over into Tajikistan.


The threat of cross-border conflict has faded, but the porous border – much of it difficult mountain terrain – is still a prime route for heroin and opium smugglers, and Afghanistan is still unstable. Russian forces say they have seized four and a half tonnes of narcotics on the border so far this year – more than they confiscated in the whole of 2002.


Moscow continues to have an interest in securing the Tajik-Afghan border, which represents the historical border of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and still marks the limit of modern Russia’s regional influence. It is keen to prevent the further spread of drugs and Islamic extremism from Afghanistan, and its own long Central Asian border – with Kazakstan – is a lot further north and much harder to patrol.


Tajikistan is poorly placed to start paying for a much-enlarged border force. Its own military is underfunded and badly equipped. Up till now, the Russian frontier troops have offered a convenient solution to both countries. Although the officers are Russian and ultimate command rests in Moscow, the other ranks are recruited locally in Tajikistan.


The current arrangement is that Tajikistan is supposed to contribute half the running costs of the force. All the signs are that the funding question is central to the foot-dragging over a new agreement. Even before the treaty ran out in May, suggestions were being made in Tajikistan that the Russians should pay more – perhaps even 100 per cent of the costs.


Russia’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Maxim Peshkov, told IWPR that the Tajiks were not even meeting their current commitments, “Dushanbe… is not paying 50 per cent of the costs of maintaining the Russian border troops contingent in Tajikistan. But the Russian leadership treats this problem with understanding, since Tajikistan is facing major economic difficulties.”


A parallel dispute is going on over the terms for Russian military base in Tajikistan. At one level the discussion is rather academic, since the base will mostly consist not of new troops, but of a Russian army division – separate from the border guard force - which has stayed in the republic ever since the Soviet Union collapsed.


An agreement formalising the base was signed in 1998, but the details have not been nailed down. There have been mutual recriminations, with the Tajik defence ministry blaming Moscow for the delay and Russian defence sources saying that on the contrary, it is Dushanbe which is obstructing progress by demanding large sums of money in rent.


Many analysts in the region agree that the two sides are likely to sign up to a deal that allows Russian border troops to stay on. Tajikistan’s assistance in the coalition war in Afghanistan has brought promises of help with border protection. But right now only Russia can guarantee a strong military presence on the ground.


“At the moment, it is premature to discuss the withdrawal of Russian border troops from Tajikistan,” Dushanbe analyst Ismoil Rahmatov told IWPR. “Afghanistan still remains a dangerous neighbour for Tajikistan, above all because of the threat that religious extremism, terrorism and heroin might spread into Tajikistan.”


Nargis Zokirova is a correspondent with Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper.


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