Tajikistan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy is testing the Kremlin’s patience. Russia is trying to bolster its influence in Dushanbe by pressing for the return of Russian border troops, but Tajik leaders are rebuffing Moscow’s embrace.
For over a year, Moscow has been pressing for the return of Russian border troops to Tajikistan, saying they are needed to contain a surge of Afghan drugs into Russia. Russian officials are also concerned that spreading violence in northern Afghanistan could spill over into Central Asia. Tajikistan and Afghanistan share a 1,300-kilometer long border.
Russian border guards used to patrol Tajikistan’s southern frontier, but withdrew in 2005. Since then approximately 60 Russian advisers have been attached to Tajik border units. The agreement covering the Russian advisers is due to expire soon. In addition, Moscow maintains the 201st Motor Rifle Division, comprising about 7,000 troops, in the country.
Several Russian delegations have visited Tajikistan since the start of 2011 with aim of laying the groundwork for a comprehensive security treaty – one that would enable the return of Russian border guards. But despite hints in the local media that a new deal could be ready by September, many Russian and Tajik analysts doubt the two parties will be able to find common ground anytime soon.
Tajik and Russian officials appear to hold irreconcilable positions on the border guard issue, highlighted by Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi statement on July 18, ruling out the possibility of a return of Russian troops. Zarifi also said Russia should start paying rent for the stationing of Russian forces in Tajikistan.
"Tajik territory is not the personal property of the foreign minister or the defense minister and it has its value," Zarifi told journalists.
Moscow has not responded publically to Zarifi’s comments. In the past, however, whenever Dushanbe has raised the possibility of seeking rent for the 201st division’s base, the Kremlin has threatened to impose a visa requirement for Tajik labor migrants. Such a restriction could drastically curtail the number of Tajiks working in Russia, and thus have a devastating impact of the Tajik economy. According to some estimates, remittances sent home by labor migrants are responsible for generating more than 40 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP.
The Kremlin is frustrated with Dushanbe’s “multi-vector foreign policy,” according to one political analyst in Moscow who has close ties to the Russian State Duma. Russian policymakers have long been concerned about a fall in Moscow's political influence in Dushanbe, combined with the growing diplomatic muscle of the United States, China and Iran. Although China is perhaps the most aggressive player in Tajikistan, pouring significant amounts of investment into various projects, Russian policy experts and politicians seem preoccupied with the United States.
“To ensure its military presence [in Central Asia], Washington applies all means to take the local elite under control,” Leonid Ivashov, president of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems, told Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta in early July. “Upon the background of souring relations with Russia, Tajikistan is facilitating a long-term presence of the United States on its territory. Soon, all countries of the region – from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan will be speckled with [American] military bases.”
Tajik President Imomali Rahmon’s administration is overplaying its hand, added the expert with close Duma ties, speaking on condition of anonymity. “By demanding payment for the 201st military base, Tajik politicians forget that during the [1992-1997] civil war, these very same Russian soldiers were protecting key Tajik infrastructure facilities, which could have been destroyed,” the expert said.
Betting on the Americans to be the best protectors/promoters of Tajik interests is a mistake, the expert went on to caution. Given the US focus on security in Afghanistan, “neither Tajikistan nor the other countries of the region are destined to enjoy their independence and wealth,” the expert claimed.
Tajik analysts, meanwhile, assert Russia is the country that is having trouble adjusting to a new reality. “China and Iran are actively establishing themselves in Tajikistan, spending significant funds on local infrastructure, providing the country with long-term soft loans. Although Russia remains Tajikistan closest partner – in terms of traditions, mentality, and language – economic and military relations are sluggish,” said Dushanbe-based political analyst Rashid Abdullo.
There is also a growing expectation in Dushanbe that Russia will become more inwardly focused in advance of the country’s presidential election in 2012. There is a widespread expectation in Moscow that Russia’s paramount leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will try to reclaim the presidency. But so far there is no clear evidence to suggest that the incumbent, Dmitry Medvedev, is ready to voluntarily step aside.
With Afghanistan in flux and a Russian election winner still not determined, the Tajik leadership appears intent on keeping its options open. “One cannot act chaotically in international politics. Acting chaotically, we risk becoming a toy in the hands of geopolitical players, and we will turn into nothing. We need to analyze everything and create a unified strategy for the whole of Central Asia,” Rahmon’s advisor, Sukhrob Sharipov, told journalists in mid-July.
**CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story referred to Russian media outlets such as state-controlled RIA Novosti as reporting that on July 18 Tajikistan’s foreign minister, Hamrokhon Zarifi, had said Moscow should pay $300 million to lease bases in Tajikistan. The Foreign Ministry informs EurasiaNet.org that the minister never named a figure. This story has been updated to reflect the Foreign Ministry’s position.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.