Tajiks Alarmed by Russian Troop Withdrawal

Gorno-Badakhshan residents fear departure of Russian border guards will leave them without jobs.

Tajiks Alarmed by Russian Troop Withdrawal

Gorno-Badakhshan residents fear departure of Russian border guards will leave them without jobs.

“I have been serving in the Russian border guards… for over 20 years. I do not have any other profession and if the Russian forces really do leave Badakhshan, my seven children and I will lose our means of subsistence,” Ensign Nazar Mavlonazarov, who lives on the Tajik-Afghan border and works with Russian forces stationed along frontier, told IWPR.

“As an experience border guard,” he added, “I can say with certainty that the Tajik forces do not yet have the necessary experience or the equipment to guarantee the security of this border.”

Plans to withdraw Russian troops from the Pamir section of Tajikistan’s frontier with Afghanistan by the end of this year have caused deep concern amongst local residents, many of whom have staged protests in recent weeks to highlight their worries.

Large numbers of people living in south-eastern Tajikistan rely for their economic survival on jobs created by the presence of Russian troops stationed there. And many locals and observers also worry that plans for a withdrawal could herald an influx of drugs and criminality from Afghanistan.

A Russian-controlled force has been guarding the 1,344 kilometre border for the past eleven years. There are currently 11,500 Russian border guards stationed in the region, with Tajik troops responsible for only 73 km of the frontier.

Russia has maintained a military presence in the Gorno-Badakhshan region since the late 19th century, when it voluntarily joined the Russian empire. And residents have enjoyed certain benefits from the relationship with Moscow over the years. The first teachers and doctors in the region were Russians, and they built the first bridges and hydroelectric stations there.

An elderly resident of Khorog, who gave his name as Kadam, told IWPR that locals have long enjoyed a friendly relationship with Russians. “They have always helped us with food, and we could buy delicious things in their shops. In exchange, we gave them dried fruit,” she said. “I remember the wives of Russian commanders treated our children, gave them books.”

Sergei Karaganov, a senior official from the Russian council for defence policy, told IWPR that there is still room for discussion regarding the withdrawal of Moscow’s troops from the frontier region. But Tajik president Emomali Rahmonov appears determined to stick to the terms of the original agreement for them to leave by the end of this year.

“The border is a symbol of the state’s independence, it is unheard of for the border of one nation to be protected by border guards from another,” he said at a meeting with Gorno-Badakhshan officials this summer.

The handover of responsibility for some sections of the frontier – including Gorno-Badakhshan – to Tajik forces, which had originally been expected to begin in May, is now set to occur over the coming months.

“Three Russian border units in Ishkashim, Kalaikhumb and Khorog, which control the 700 km area of the Tajik-Afghan border, should be handed over to Tajik units by the end of 2004,” a spokesperson for Russian border troops told IWPR. “This issue was resolved in May… as a result of bilateral agreements.”

The move has provoked a strong reaction amongst local residents, who in August staged an unsanctioned protest in Khorog, the administrative centre of the Gorno-Badakhshan region and drew up a petition addressed to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“Over 1,000 people gathered by the city administration building but during the two hours that the protest lasted, representatives of the local authorities did not come out of the building,” a witness who attended the protest told IWPR. “The people of Badakhshan will have a tough time without their Russian friends, we don’t believe that our border guards will be able to protect our frontier – savage Afghanistan is very close.”

Some protesters said they are prepared to lie in front of withdrawing tanks rather than see the Russians leave.

Most troops in the border force are actually local men hired to serve under Russian command. Head of the regional Council of Veterans of War and Labour Saidamir Abdurakhmamonov told IWPR that over 1,000 local residents currently hold such jobs in Gorno-Badakhshan.

Wages paid out by the Russians are very high compared to average earnings in the region. A contract soldier in the Russian border force earns the equivalent of between 200 and 300 US dollars per month, and an ensign receives between 300 and 400 dollars. In contrast, the head of the Tajikistan border troops, General Azimov, earns only 42 dollars a month.

Many people in Gorno-Badakhshan – Tajikistan’s poorest region, which has long relied on handouts from Moscow and more recently Dushanbe – depend on these well-paid jobs to support themselves and their families.

“They found good work, thank God, and receive a decent wage, not pennies,” a local resident who introduced himself as Davlatkadam, and whose son Azizsho serves in the Russian border guard unit based in Khorog, told IWPR. “They feed their families, help their relatives – you know how big families are here. But what will happen now?”

“If the Russian border guards leave Badakhshan, I will probably lose my job,” Azizsho told IWPR. “Where can you find a salary like that in Tajikistan? Tajik soldiers get 30 somoni [10 dollars], which is laughable – one person can’t even live on this money, let alone feed five children.”

“When my husband and I got married, we received an apartment in the Russian border unit, and we have been living and working here for 22 years,” Gulandom Mamadamonova, the wife of another local recruit, told IWPR. “If the Russian border guards leave, we will be left homeless… Our entire family is in despair over the talks of withdrawal, we can’t even imagine the dismal future that awaits our children.”

Deputy director of the Gorno-Badakhshan employment centre Gulonisho Sultonnazarov told IWPR that the potential consequences of Russian withdrawal for local residents are illustrated by what happened when a Russian unit guarding Tajikistan’s border with China handed over responsibility to Tajik troops last year. “The withdrawal of the border unit from… Murgab greatly reduced the living standard of local residents. Unemployment in this region has risen drastically, and there is even a shortage of goods at the market,” he said.

Residents and observers have also expressed concern that handing control of the border to Tajik forces could drastically reduce security in the region. Press spokespersons for the Russian border force say troops seized 1.2 tonnes of heroin along the Tajik-Afghan border in August 2004 alone, including 80 kilogrammes in the region patrolled by the Kalaikhumb unit. And observers are concerned that Tajik troops will be unable to maintain this record.

“Tajik border guards are not yet ready to protect the state border. They do not have the necessary experience and financial and technical base to ensure full control of the frontier without the help of their Russian colleagues,” said Davlatbegim Mamdalibekova, who formerly held an important position in local government and recently organised an appeal to President Rakhmonov by 200 women from Khorog to extend the term of Russian soldiers in Gorno-Badakhshan.

“The decision to withdraw Russian border guards from Badakhshan may result in an uncontrolled situation, unpredictable incidents on the border and a mass influx of ‘white death’ [heroin]. Our hungry and shabbily dressed soldiers will probably give into temptation and help Afghan drug traffickers,” she added.

Makhmadruzi Iskandarov, head of the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan, agrees, “I know the state of our border troops, and I’m certain that they cannot protect the border. The agreement on the presence of Russian border troops needs to be extended.”

“If the Russian border guards leave for good, it’s hard to imagine the amount of drugs that will arrive here,” said Davlatsho Dustmamadov, who lives in Buni, a village near Khorog. “A lot of young people here have become addicts, and it’s terrible to think of what will happen. Our politicians should think about this when making decisions.”

Karaganov told IWPR that it is not just local security that could be affected by the withdrawal.

“The withdrawal of Russian troops from the Tajik-Afghan border is not beneficial to Tajikistan, to Russia, or to any other country,” he said. “There are still negative tendencies in Afghanistan, as well as the activity of terrorist groups in Uzbekistan, which threaten the security of the region. Russia needs guards on the Tajik-Afghan border. Although this is a very expensive filter, it is worth it for Russia’s security.”

A press spokesperson for the Russian border forces told IWPR that following the withdrawal, residents of Gorno-Badakhshan who hold dual nationality may be able to continue serving in the Russian military outside of Tajikistan.

“The agreement on the presence of the Russian border troops in Tajikistan, signed by the governments of Russia and Tajikistan on May 25, 1993 stipulates that Tajik citizens with dual citizenship have the same rights as Russian border guards,” the spokesperson said. “When the state border areas are handed over, Tajik citizens working there will be dismissed – and those with Russian citizenship will be given the opportunity to serve in Russia, depending on their age, experience and service record.”

Some observers estimate that up to 10,000 Gorno-Badakhshan residents currently hold Russian passports. And many will be tempted to take up the offer.

“If I can, I will go to serve as a contract soldier in Russia. It’s good that I have Russian citizenship – without it you can only work on building sites in Russia, like all the men in this country,” said Azizsho.

Gulnora Amirshoeva is an IWPR editor in Dushanbe. Shamsiddin Orumbekov is a journalist in Khorog.

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