On December 20, 2011, members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) reached an agreement that makes it impossible for any individual country in the group to host a foreign military base on its territory without the full consent of all other members of the organization. The initiative empowers Russia to veto any foreign basing plans in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Hence, the move serves as a continuation of Russia’s efforts to counteract the influence of the US military and reassert its own role in its immediate neighborhood (Interfax, December 21).
The decision effectively puts an end to Tajikistan’s aspirations to explore closer security relations with non-CSTO nations. Following Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, Russia assumed the role of the country’s security guarantor. Russian border guards policed Tajikistan’s southern frontier until 2005. A Russian army division that had stayed in Tajikistan after the Soviet break-up was reorganized into a permanent military base in 2004. The base now has around 7,000 troops stationed in Dushanbe, Kulob, and Qurghonteppa (www.news.tj, October 21, 2011). Moscow has also been the largest provider of technical military assistance to Dushanbe.
Tajikistan participates in all Russian-led integration and regional security schemes, including the CSTO. The country contributes an infantry battalion to the group’s Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF). In April 2010, Tajikistan hosted the CRRF’s military exercises Boundary 2010 that aimed at preventing possible incursions of “terrorists from Afghanistan” (www.news.tj, April 26, 2010). In September 2011, the CSTO conducted exercises in Tajikistan as part of Tsentr 2011, which also trained the group’s militaries in preventing possible popular uprisings (EDM, September 30, 2011).
On November 22, a court in Tajikistan released two foreign pilots, including a Russian citizen, whose imprisonment on questionable charges two weeks earlier had infuriated the authorities in Russia and prompted them to respond in a way that threatened to ruin Tajikistan’s economy. Moscow’s harsh reaction to the incident appears to have been motivated mainly by the ruling party’s calculations ahead of the elections. Although Russia’s punitive action that focused on Tajik migrant workers was mainly designed for domestic consumption, it angered a large part of Tajikistan’s population and the political elite.
BACKGROUND: The pilots – Vladimir Sadovnichy, a Russian citizen, and Alexei Rudenko, an Estonian citizen – were detained in March after landing two cargo planes at a Tajik airport without permission. Several months later, they were charged with smuggling, illegal border crossing, and violating international aviation regulations. On November 8, a Tajik court found the pilots guilty on all three charges and sentenced them to eight and a half years in prison. The pilots alleged that the charges brought against them had been trumped up by Tajik security agencies as a justification for confiscating the aircrafts.
On November 22, a court in Tajikistan released two foreign pilots, including a Russian citizen, who two weeks earlier had been sentenced to lengthy terms in jail. The release of Vladimir Sadovnichy, a Russian citizen, and Alexei Rudenko, an Estonian citizen, has been prompted by an unusually strong backlash from Moscow that threatened to ruin Tajikistan’s economy.
Sadovnichy and Rudenko were flying their Antonov-72 cargo planes from Afghanistan to Russia on March 12 when Tajik air traffic controllers denied them permission to land for refueling at the Qurghonteppa (Kurgan-Tube) Airport in southern Tajikistan. The pilots landed their aircrafts anyway, claiming that they did not have enough fuel to return to Kabul. After the landing, the crews of the two planes were placed by State Committee for National Security (GKNB) forces in a hotel where they were held for about two months. In May, Tajik authorities formally arrested Sadovnichy and Rudenko, but released the rest of the crew. Following a trial that had been kept mostly low-profile, the two pilots were on November 8 found guilty of smuggling, violating international aviation regulations, and illegally crossing Tajikistan’s border. They were each sentenced to eight and a half years in prison and the planes were confiscated as “physical evidence”.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is unlikely to receive a very warm welcome during his state visit to Tajikistan scheduled for September. The gradually cooling relations between the two countries have hit a new low after Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on August 2 that Russian border guards should return to Tajikistan’s southern frontier (from which they pulled out in 2005) in order to stem the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan. Aware of Dushanbe’s unwillingness to share its security duties with Moscow, Gryzlov proposed to introduce visas for Tajik nationals travelling to Russia if Tajikistan persists in opposing the return of Russian border guards. Remittances sent home by an estimated one million Tajik labor migrants in Russia account for about 40 percent of the country’s GDP, keeping hundreds of thousands of Tajik families out of extreme poverty.
For over one year, Moscow has been pressing for the return of its border troops to Tajikistan. Russian officials are genuinely concerned about the impact of Afghan narcotics, most of which are smuggled into the country through Central Asia. An estimated 130,000 people in Russia die each year from heroin overdoses and drug-related crime (www.telegraph.co.uk, April 28, 2010). Last year, Russia’s anti-narcotics chief, Viktor Ivanov, suggested that about 60 percent of Russia-bound Afghan heroin is smuggled through Tajikistan, which needs support in fighting drug trafficking through its borders (www.rg.ru, May 6, 2010).
As US-led forces gear up to downsize in Afghanistan, Moscow is increasingly worried about the possibility of militants, drugs and instability seeping into Central Asia. This growing concern is pushing the Kremlin to seek a more hands-on role in Central Asian border security.
The greatest security challenge for Russia is Tajikistan, an impoverished country with a porous 1,400-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan. At least six armed clashes between security forces and suspected militants and/or drug traffickers reportedly occurred near the frontier during the first four months of this year. Officials in Dushanbe insist that Islamic militants are using Afghanistan as safe haven in efforts to topple the Tajik government. Independent observers, meanwhile, suspect much of the recent violence is linked to narcotics. Whatever the cause, Moscow is alarmed.