TAJIKISTAN: Russia retains strong position in Tajikistan
Vladimir Beron «View Bio

June 10, 2004

The June 4 Sochi Summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Tajik counterpart, Imomali Rakhmonov, produced a breakthrough in several key areas of the two countries" relations, bound to have important ramifications for the region. The issues at stake include the future of Russia"s 201st Motorized Infantry Division in Tajikistan, the timetable for withdrawing Russian troops from the Tajik-Afghan border, ownership of the Nurek space-surveillance center and the Tajik debt to Russia of some $299 million.

The breakthrough comes after an extended period of difficult negotiations between the two countries. As late as March, the Tajik side appeared set in its demands for Russia to write off the entire debt and pay an additional $50 million for Nurek. In addition, the Tajik president was hoping to be granted powers to assume the command of Russia"s 201st Motorized Infantry Division in the event of what he may perceive as an emergency. For its part, Moscow made no secret of its displeasure with the Tajik demands, which the Russian side saw as flatly unacceptable. Senior Russian officials made well publicized predictions of dire consequences for Tajikistan"s security in light of the fast approaching deadline of May 2005 for the turnover of border control from Russian to Tajik troops.

Meanwhile, the international community also grew increasingly unhappy with the prospect of Tajikistan left alone to guard its porous borders with Afghanistan, especially given a marked increase in the production of heroin in that country. Ongoing fighting between US-led coalition forces and remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan are also a source of concern for possible incursions into Tajikistan by terrorist gangs. At a May 28 press conference in Dushanbe, the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, warned that the withdrawal of the Russian border guards from Tajikistan will lead to "definite problems."

As far as Russia is concerned, Moscow has long sought to secure a long-term military presence in Tajikistan as part of a broader security concept with regard to Russia"s so-called outer rim in Central Asia. The Russian government is worried that if left on its own, Tajikistan may slip again into the chaos of the mid-1990s that resulted in a bloody five-year civil war between the secular regime and Islamic militants. An increase in volatility in Tajikistan is likely to undermine the stability of neighboring former Soviet states, such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with detrimental ramifications for the security situation on Russia"s southern flank, which is complicated by the Chechen war. In this context, the Nurek space-surveillance station is of key importance to Russia, as it is capable of facilitating the monitoring of objects at altitudes of up to 40,000 kilometers.
In addition, Moscow is likely seeking to prevent the establishment of a strong Western foothold in its underbelly. As the Sochi Summit was taking place, a US-EU delegation tasked with evaluating the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border, and led by John Fox, the director of the US State Department"s Office of Caucasus and Central Asian Affairs, was visiting the country. On June 7, the American ambassador in Dushanbe rejected media reports alleging that the US had offered Tajikistan some $12 million to hasten the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Tajik-Afghan border. The next day, John Fox stressed that the US is willing to provide strictly technical support, and is not seeking to meddle in Tajik-Russian relations with respect to the Tajik-Afghan border.

In retrospect, preliminary indications suggest that Tajikistan has agreed to cede Nurek in exchange for Russia writing off some $250 million. The remainder of the debt is to be swapped for equity in the Sangtuda hydroelectric station project, which will be managed under the supervision of Russia"s Unified Energy Systems electricity monopoly. Russia will also get a permanent military base in Tajikistan, and the withdrawal of the Russian troops stationed on the Tajik-Afghan border will not take place until 2006 at the earliest.

Although on the face of it, Tajikistan"s concessions appear disproportional, there are some important benefits from the agreement for the regime in Dushanbe. Apart from the security guarantees that come with the prolonged Russian military presence, President Rakhmonov avoids a confrontation with influential Tajik businessmen, whose interests in Russia are likely to have suffered should relations between the two countries have soured. Moreover, a significant segment of the Tajik work force is taking advantage of eased regulations for entering Russia in search of work, and a disruption of this arrangement would have caused serious social and economic problems. Prior to the agreement, Russian negotiators had suggested the introduction of a restrictive visa regime for Tajiks. The withdrawal of Russian troops would have also unsettled residents of the Pamir region who have warned of civil disturbance should Russian forces depart the Tajik-Afghan border.

Vladimir Beron is Senior Risk Analyst with the international risk management group Sentigence