As talks continue over the extension of Russia’s use of a military base in Tajikistan, the Central Asian country’s envoy to Moscow suggests that the two countries have reconciled their positions on all parameters of a new lease except its duration. Speaking to the media on June 29, Abdulmajid Dostiev acknowledged that the finalization of the new deal is held back only by disagreements over how long Tajikistan will host the Russian base under the lease. Moscow insists on extending its basing rights in the country for the next 49 years, arguing that a long-term arrangement is needed to secure funding for the development of the facility. The government in Tajikistan, in contrast, seeks to limit the new lease to ten years or less. Yet, according to the diplomat, Dushanbe and Moscow are now “very close” to a new base deal (ozodi.org, June 29).
Dostiev’s remarks came in response to Russia’s Ground Forces Commander, Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin’s announcement that negotiations with Tajikistan over the future of the base have reached a deadlock. Speaking at the Russian parliament on June 26, Chirkin blamed Dushanbe for the stalemate: “Tajikistan has demands that are absolutely impossible to meet; [they] run counter to our proposals. We are now facing a situation from which there might be no way out whatsoever.” The Russian general admitted that the major point of contention had to do with the duration of the new lease, with Tajikistan unwilling to agree to the 49-year arrangement favored by Moscow. Chirkin has also suggested that unless the two countries find a way out of the deadlock, the Russian troops might vacate their garrisons in Tajikistan after the current lease expires in 2014. Echoing Chirkin’s statement, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that it had stopped funding the development of the base pending the outcome of “difficult talks” with Tajikistan (gazeta.ru, regnum.ru, June 27; interfax.ru, July 3).
The Russian general has also proposed that Dushanbe benefits more than Moscow from the latter’s military presence. Chirkin warned that disagreements over energy, land and water distribution might eventually lead to armed conflicts involving Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to Chirkin, the Russian troops based in Tajikistan would serve as a “guarantor of stability and security in the region” if such conflicts erupt. Russian officials and experts have made similar claims before, pointing to rising political tensions within Tajikistan and the uncertainties surrounding Afghanistan’s post-2014 future as major security threats that Dushanbe would not be able to tackle without Russia’s assistance (ria.ru, June 26; news.tj, avesta.tj, June 28).
Speaking at a government meeting on January 18, Tajikistan’s Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloyev said India has become one of his ministry’s key international partners. This statement reflects deepening defense cooperation between India and Tajikistan. The strong ties between the two militaries date back to the early 2000s, when New Delhi and Dushanbe jointly provided support to the anti-Taliban resistance forces, the Northern Alliance, in Afghanistan. Tajikistan is India’s closest neighbor in Central Asia, the region, which strategists in New Delhi view as part of their “extended neighborhood.” India’s growing engagement with the country has been interpreted by some analysts as signifying New Delhi’s intention to use Tajikistan as a potential springboard for its military in the region.
Yet India’s role in Tajikistan is more limited than many journalists and experts have suggested. A great deal of speculation about the allegedly growing presence of the Indian military in the country has been fuelled by India’s renovation of the Ayni airfield, 25 kilometers west of Dushanbe. The $70 million overhaul was completed in 2010, and included an extension of the runway and the construction of hangars, air traffic control tower, and administrative buildings (www.khovar.tj, September 3, 2010).
The Indian military’s role in renovating the airfield provoked speculation that New Delhi intended to establish a military foothold in Tajikistan. Responding to such claims, Tajik authorities have insisted that they do not intend to grant New Delhi basing rights, and that the only country with which they hold talks on the use of the Ayni base is Russia. Indian officials, however, have not explicitly denied their interest in the airfield, suggesting instead that it was up to Dushanbe to decide who would receive permission to use the facility (www.news.tj, November 11, 2010).
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.