On October 5, the Russian and Tajik defense ministers signed an agreement that extended Russia’s lease of a large army base in the Central Asian country for another 29 years. With the current lease expiring at the end of 2013, the deal guarantees Moscow a continuation of its military presence in Tajikistan until at least 2042. Under the new agreement, Tajikistan will continue hosting Russia’s largest ground force deployed abroad for free. The roughly 7,000 military personnel serving at the base as well as their families will be granted immunity from legal prosecution in the country.
BACKGROUND: The deal was signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Dushanbe, ending a lengthy period of negotiation and heated debates. Moscow and Dushanbe initially announced their intention to extend the presence of Russian troops in Tajikistan in September 2011. Shortly afterwards, however, it became apparent that the two countries had major disagreements on the terms of the new base deal. Dushanbe reportedly insisted that Russia should pay rent, while Moscow was keen on using the strategically important base free of charge. Dushanbe also resented a 49-year lease deal pushed by Moscow, proposing instead a shorter term arrangement.
The agreements inked during Putin’s visit to Tajikistan are designed to satisfy both countries. Russia has secured an extension of its basing rights in Tajikistan on very favorable conditions. Over the next three decades, Moscow will only pay a “symbolic sum” for stationing its troops in the strategically located Central Asian country.
As for Tajikistan, the country appears to have secured significant indirect compensation for hosting the Russian base. First, Russia agreed to assist Tajikistan in modernizing its military. Although the details of this arrangement have not yet been made public, Russia’s defense ministry officials suggested that Moscow will continue providing the Tajik armed forces with “modern” military hardware and will allocate more scholarships for Tajik cadets to study in military academies in Russia.
Second, Russia agreed to remove import duties on light oil products exported to Tajikistan. Russia supplies the bulk of petrol used in the country. Over the last two years, Moscow steadily raised its duties on oil deliveries, causing abrupt rises in food and fuel prices in the impoverished country. Under the newly signed deals, Russian oil deliveries to Tajikistan will be exempt from duties starting from 2013. Although estimates vary, experts suggest that this arrangement will save Tajikistani citizens between US$ 200 million and US$ 350 million annually.
Third, Moscow agreed to provide better terms for Tajik migrant workers in Russia. Between 1,2 million and 1,5 million Tajikistani citizens, more than one-seventh of the country’s population, currently work in Russia. The money they send home is Tajikistan’s main source of hard currency earnings, amounting to about 40 percent of GDP and keeping more than half of the country’s population out of extreme poverty. Under the deals signed in Dushanbe, work permits for Tajikistani migrant workers in Russia will be increased from one to three years and the deadline for registration with the migration authorities extended from 15 to 30 days. Finally, Russia pledged to allocate US$ 5 million for Tajikistan’s counter-narcotics efforts and to increase investment in its energy and mining sectors.
IMPLICATIONS: The extension of Russia’s basing rights in Tajikistan represents a major success for Moscow’s diplomacy. The government of President Putin has been concerned about the security situation in Afghanistan after 2014 when NATO troops are expected to complete their withdrawal from the country. Moscow fears that the government of Hamid Karzai could fall apart without the support of coalition troops, with the resulting violence spilling over the long and porous border with Tajikistan. In this sense, the Kremlin views the continued presence of its troops – the bulk of which are stationed in the towns of Kulob and Qurghonteppa, along Tajikistan’s southern border with Afghanistan – as its main line of defense against potential instability and militancy stemming from a post-2014 Afghanistan.
Putin also signed a deal in September to extend until 2032 Moscow’s lease on a number of military facilities in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, including an air base hosting Russian ground-attack aircraft. Although Moscow does not admit it, its willingness to write off about US$ 490 million of Kyrgyz debt and invest in the construction of large hydropower plants in Kyrgyzstan was perhaps the key reason for Bishkek’s decision to ask the U.S. to vacate the Manas air base it is currently using in the country after 2014. Hence, the new base deal signed with Tajikistan reinforces Moscow’s political and military control over a large segment of Central Asia, forcing the U.S. out of a key part of Russia’s “near abroad,” and shielding Russia from a potentially unstable Afghanistan.
The new agreements signed with Moscow also offer significant political and security advantages to Tajikistan. The country, which experienced a deadly civil war in 1992-1997, is not immune from a potential spillover of violence and Islamic radicalism from post-2014 Afghanistan. In this sense, Dushanbe shares Moscow’s interest in ensuring that security dynamics in Afghanistan have no impact on other post-Soviet republics. Besides, the government in Dushanbe understands that the presence of a Russian military base in the country safeguards Tajikistan from potential aggression by Uzbekistan, which fiercely opposes Dushanbe’s hydropower development schemes. Hence, there appears to be a good amount of truth in President Putin’s claim that the continued deployment of Russian troops is a guarantee of stability in Tajikistan and the broader region.
In addition, Tajikistan will certainly benefit from the removal of Russia’s duties on oil imports to the country and from the privileges granted to its migrant laborers in Russia. Cheaper petrol deliveries are expected to reduce the costs of fuel and basic foodstuffs in the country where about half of the population still lives below the poverty line. The better terms granted to migrant workers are also expected to have a positive impact on an estimated 60 to 80 percent of families in Tajikistan that receive money from relatives working in Russia. Therefore, following his meeting with Putin, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon said he was “deeply satisfied” with the signed deals. Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of Tajikistan’s opposition Islamic Revival Party (IRPT), suggested that the benefits offered by the deals outweighed the disadvantages of hosting a foreign military base in the country.
However, the deals have also evoked negative reactions in Tajikistan. For example, Rahmatillo Zoirov, the head of the opposition Social-Democratic Party (SDPT), reckoned that the agreements advanced Russia’s strategic interests in the region, while offering no significant benefits to the country’s population beyond a narrow group of political elites. A number of independent journalists and political analysts have argued that Rahmon signed the deals pushed by Moscow in order to boost his popularity in the country ahead of the 2013 elections by delivering lower fuel prices and privileges for migrant workers and also to dissuade Moscow from seeking to replace him with a “more convenient” politician. Political analyst Saimuddin Dustov has been particularly critical of Dushanbe’s agreement to grant legal immunity to Russian troops in Tajikistan, calling it a “national humiliation”.
CONCLUSIONS: Under the deals signed by Russia and Tajikistan on October 5, Moscow will keep its massive military base in the Central Asian country until 2042 for free. Tajikistan is expected to be compensated for this arrangement through Russia’s support in modernizing its military as well as through cheaper oil deliveries and some privileges granted to its migrant laborers in Russia. The deals have been praised in Russia, while evoking mixed reactions in Tajikistan. It is now up to Moscow to demonstrate whether it can be as generous in delivering the negotiated assistance to its “strategic ally” as it has claimed to be.
(By Alexander Sodiqov, published originally in the CACI Analyst, October 17, 2012).