Tajiks Clear the Air With Moscow

After months of turbulence in relations with Russia, the Tajik leader seems to have smoothed things over and gained significant concessions.

Tajiks Clear the Air With Moscow

After months of turbulence in relations with Russia, the Tajik leader seems to have smoothed things over and gained significant concessions.

Wednesday, 18 November, 2009
A recent summit between the Tajik and Russian leaders failed to touch on the high-profile security matters flagged up beforehand. But analysts say that does not really matter – what Tajikistan really wanted, and got, from Moscow was progress on investment pledges plus better treatment for Tajik migrants in Russia.

While no major agreements were signed while President Imomali Rahmon was in Moscow on October 22-23, analysts say the point of his talks with Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev was to smooth over various problems that have been building over recent months. And in that regard, they say, it seems to have been a success.

In a statement after their talks, Rahmonov and Medvedev said they had instructed their governments to draft a plan for economic cooperation over the next two years, to launch a gas exploration project in Tajikistan involving Russian giant energy firm Gazprom, and to work together to protect the rights of the Tajik migrant workforce.

They also resolved the issue of a 30 million US dollar debt owed by Tajikistan for electricity provided by the Russian companies operating the Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric power station, launched in July.

Two issues that had been widely expected to feature in the discussions were not mentioned at all, either in the statement or in remarks by the two leaders at a joint press conference – a request for Moscow to pay rent on the military facilities it uses in Tajikistan, and ways of reviving the failed Russian investment in the giant Roghun hydroelectric dam scheme.

Before the meeting, there were a number of media stories suggesting that Dushanbe planned to ask the Russians to pay a substantial sum – 300 million US dollars, by one account – for maintaining troops in this Central Asian state, in the same way that the Americans have paid rent for airbases in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and, in the past, Uzbekistan.

The Russian 201st infantry division has been based in Tajikistan since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The 5,000-strong force is headquartered in the capital Dushanbe with other bases in Kulob and Qurghonteppa in the south. A ten-year deal inked in 2004 stipulated that no rent would be paid. But some Tajik officials have become annoyed by what they see as Moscow’s failure to live up to energy-sector investment pledges made at the same time.

Russia said up to two billion dollars would be put into Tajikistan, principally to complete work on the Roghun dam and build the smaller Sangtuda-1 power station. The latter investment has been a success, with energy production launched in July. But the Roghun deal subsequently fell apart over disagreements about whether the Tajik state should be allowed to retain a controlling stake in the business, and over the technical specifications of the dam itself. In 2007, the Tajik government annulled the agreement.

This year has also seen more general diplomatic friction between Moscow and Dushanbe.

The Tajiks reacted angrily in January when – in an apparent departure from earlier support for new hydroelectric schemes in Tajikistan, President Medvedev appeared to side with Uzbekistan, which opposes them on environmental grounds.

After a meeting with Uzbek president Islam Karimov, Medvedev said Russian investment in hydroelectric schemes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could only go ahead if the interests of other Central Asian states were taken into account– a formula used by the Uzbeks, who fear that new dams will greatly reduce the flow of water reaching their farming sector.

The Tajik foreign ministry responded swiftly with a diplomatic note expressing astonishment at Medvedev words.

Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based journalist and veteran Central Asia-watcher, says that despite the glaring absence of formal agreements signed at the Rahmon-Medvedev talks, their meeting drew a line over recent disagreements.

“In my view, the sole outcome from the visit – but an important one – will be that the growing campaign where complaints of various kinds have been addressed to Russia is called to a halt,” Dubnov told IWPR.

The analyst believes Moscow offered the Tajiks this official visit, complete with full honours, as an olive branch following the spat over the remarks Medvedev made about energy when he was in Tashkent.

Abdughani Mamadazimov, who heads the National Association of Political Scientists in Tajikistan, agreed that the presidents succeeded in clearing the air.

“Meeting behind closed doors, the two sides managed to rid themselves of the mutual recriminations and suspicions [that led to] a cooling in the bilateral relationship,” he said.

Statements made by Russian and Tajik officials following the visit gave a better indication of what their respective governments’ current positions are on the question of the military base.

Talking to journalists after the meeting, Russian defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov said there were no problems concerning the Russian base.

In remarks quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency, he said the question of payment would only arise when the current treaty expired in 2014.

“We’ve been looking at two options, either continuing to run the military base as now, or on a fee-paying basis. It is too early to talk about figures,” he said.

Addressing reporters in Dushanbe on October 26, Tajik foreign minister Hamrohon Zarifi confirmed that the rent-free arrangement remained in force.

“Russia and Tajikistan are making no demands and complaints to each other,” he added. “This is about military and strategic cooperation.”

Zarifi also indicated that the Russians were about to come back into the Roghun dam project.

“An international consortium to complete construction work on this energy scheme is to be set up shortly,” he said. “It will be open to any country, and we know for sure that Russia intends to join it.”

Dubnov’s view is that the Tajik leadership really needs the Russian base as much as Moscow does, as a guarantee of national security.

“It’s clear that Moscow is fairly well informed about the real state of affairs in Tajikistan, and understands both the potential consequences of worsening social tensions in the country and the stabilising role which the Russian military base plays,” he said.

Some Tajik analysts have noted that General David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, visited Dushanbe on October 26, a few days after Rahmonov’s trip to Moscow. They see his trip as evidence that Washington is vying for the Tajiks’ attention as a potential security partner in the region.

Dubnov takes such speculation with a pinch of salt.

“The Americans are not as interested in having military bases in Tajikistan as some in Dushanbe imagine,” he said. “Moreover, the Americans would never intervene in a domestic military political conflict to protect the current rulers of Tajikistan.”

Dushanbe-based analyst Rashid Ghani Abdullo argues that the talk of rent payments was a bargaining chip which Tajikistan wanted to extract concessions in other areas.

“This is more than likely an attempt to use this issue as a method for getting Russia to move on strategically important hydroelectric projects,” he said,” said Abdullo.

Daler Gufronov is a correspondent for the Asia Plus newspaper.

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