Moscow is deploying its fine-tuned instrument of influence over the poorest and most dependent Central Asian states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. For the second year in a row, the Kremlin has slapped fuel duties on one of the countries in spring, just before the planting season when farmers need to top up their tractors. The move, cruel though it may be, has proven effective in bending the region’s recalcitrant despots to Moscow’s will or even, as in the case of Kyrgyzstan, helped oust ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
A week ago, Moscow suspended tariffs on fuel deliveries to Kyrgyzstan after Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev kowtowed at the Kremlin and promised to cut American middleman out of fuel deliveries to the American base at Manas Airport.
Tajikistan received duty-free Russian light refined fuels (gasoline, kerosene and aviation fuel) until mid-2010. The sudden introduction of tariffs then pushed prices at the pump (or the rusting tin funnel, as is often the case in Tajikistan) up 30 percent and fomented fears Russia was playing the same game it honed with Bakiyev. In December, however, officials from both sides announced they had almost worked out a deal to resume duty-free imports. Now, those tariffs are not disappearing, but increasing by an extra 5.3 percent.
So analysts in Tajikistan are asking: What is Moscow bargaining for? The Kremlin has made no secret of its frustration with President Emomali Rakhmon’s unenthusiastic attempts to seal off the 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan, through which Russia complains that 60 percent of the narcotics on its streets initially pass. In fact, in the past year a steady flow of top officials have announced that Russia would like to take control of the entire border, which had been the case until 2005.
Lately, negotiations on what to do with the handful of Russian border advisors still in Tajikistan have been slow going. Tajikistan’s former Minister of Economic Development and Trade, Davlat Usmon, says the tariffs are Russia’s way of pressing Dushanbe to keep the advisors around.
Dushanbe is also slow to announce who will use the recently refurbished Ayni airbase. The Foreign Ministry has said it is negotiating only with Russia, but Usmon suggests Tajik authorities are holding out for a higher bidder, such as the United States. Russia currently has three basing facilities in Tajikistan, under the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, stationed for free. Whenever he has the opportunity, President Rakhmon asks for rent, a suggestion Russian officials usually laugh off with a caustic reminder that the one million or so migrant workers Tajikistan sends to Russia could suddenly need visas.
One Tajik analyst told Asia Plus that Moscow wants a greater show of loyalty, as it is getting from Kyrgyzstan. Chances are he's right. Moscow has concrete interests on the ground in Tajikistan and it wants no one to forget who’s the boss in Central Asia.