Tajikistan seems to be angling for a quid-pro-quo deal with Russia in which Dushanbe grants Moscow access to the Ayni air base in return for the Kremlin’s help in resolving a water-related dispute with Uzbekistan. Analysts are skeptical that the Kremlin will bite.
Speaking at a news conference October 18, Tajik Foreign Minister Khamrokhon Zarifi indicated that talks with Russia on an Ayni base deal were at an advanced stage. The facility officially opened in September, some three years after renovations, funded by India, were completed at a cost of about $70 million. Since then, there has been speculation about whether India, Russia, the United States or even France would base aircraft there. Zarifi made it clear that Russia, at this stage, is the only player still in the game.
“We are holding talks on the Ayni airfield only with Russia. Such talks are not being held with anyone else,” Zarifi said.
Zarifi also took a tough line on the dispute with Uzbekistan. Tashkent has long opposed Tajik plans to boost its hydro-electric power generating capacity, claiming that such development would curtail water supplies needed for the Uzbek agricultural sector. Trying to coerce Tajik officials into backing off their plans, Uzbekistan mounted a de-facto rail blockade against Tajikistan. Zarifi characterized Uzbek concerns about Tajik hydro-electricity projects as “groundless.”
Using Ayni as bait, political analysts in Central Asia believe Tajikistan is trying to get Russia to intervene on its behalf. Ajdar Kurtov, an analyst with the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Moscow, suggested that Zarifi, the Tajik foreign minister, was playing “Eastern games” with Russia, adding that Ayni access was likely not enough to get the Kremlin to shift its existing position, which is essentially to remain above the Tajik-Uzbek fray.
“Russia is only interested in stability in Central Asia,” Kurtov asserted, adding that that Ayni talks weren’t moving quickly “because Russia always considers Uzbekistan’s interests.”
Moscow has maintained a fine balancing act in recent years in the Tajik-Uzbek dispute. In 2004, Russian firms announced that they would help Tajikistan complete the Rogun Dam, the key component in Dushanbe’s hydro-electric power strategy. But when Uzbek opposition grew too loud, Russian firms stalled on the project.
Rashid Gani Abdullo, a Dushanbe-based political analyst, suggested that a Russian military presence at Ayni made sense, while adding that talks about a base deal should be isolated from other regional issues. “[Using the Ayni air base] is in Russia’s national security interests,” Abdullo told EurasiaNet.org.
Abdullo and other experts suggested that Russia is naturally inclined to seek a deal on Ayni because it could help consolidate the Kremlin’s strategic position in the region. Russia has expressed growing alarm in recent months about a rise in Islamic militant activity in northern Afghanistan. Officials in Moscow have also been keeping a close eye on militant activity in Tajikistan’s Rasht Valley.
Tajik officials have attributed recent violence to Islamic militants, but some local experts say the trouble could be connected to domestic political opposition to President Imomali Rahmon’s administration.
Zarifi may well have vexed Russian officials when, during his October 18 news conference, he politely rejected offers of outside help to contain the Rasht Valley violence. “Tajikistan is capable of dealing with this situation without any external help,” Zarifi said. The foreign minister acknowledged receiving assistance offers from Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, going on to say that he “fully informed them [foreign officials] about the situation in the country and expressed my gratitude to them for the readiness to work together, and said that we ourselves would be able to establish order in our own house.”
Kurtov described Zarifi’s comments as “irresponsible” for a country that “doesn’t have sustainable development and can’t stand on its own feet.”
“In theory, militants in Rasht are a problem that can be solved, but what if life there becomes so difficult that people start to sympathize with anti-government groups?” Kurtov asked. “The government will not be able to help its citizens if instability takes hold, their professional military is not strong enough and lacks technical capabilities.”
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.