Tired of sluggish negotiations over the fate of their military bases in Tajikistan, officials from Moscow have upped the ante with emotional tough talk this week. Dushanbe, the Russian message is, needs us more than we need them.
Over 6,000 soldiers from the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, one of Russia’s largest contingents abroad, are stationed in Tajikistan. They famously helped President Emomali Rakhmon stay afloat during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. But their basing rights are set to expire in 2014, and Rakhmon’s government says it expects payment for any extension. In response, the Russians say that come 2014, when NATO departs Afghanistan, Tajikistan is going to be begging for them to stay.
During a meeting last September, Rakhmon and Russia’s then President Dmitry Medvedev publicly agreed to extend the base deal for 49 years, and promised to work out the details in early 2012. But Rakhmon looked miserable while making the announcement standing beside Medvedev, analysts noted at the time. And talk of a $300 million demand for rent, while denied by the Tajik side, poisoned coverage of the meetings.
Tajik officials quietly confirm they are indeed looking for rent, but nowhere near $300 million, and that they want an agreement for 10 years with an option to renew, not 49. This week, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, reportedly said Moscow will not pay the “stubborn” Tajiks.
Some of Moscow’s arguments sound like the cries of a jilted lover. Russian officials are concerned Tajikistan is too close to the NATO alliance and, always seeing a zero-sum game, blame the West for getting in the way of a long-running partnership.
On July 4, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said "the presence of such huge NATO units near Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and other Central Asian partners is a factor of influence they cannot ignore,” according to Reuters. "The forces of NATO in Afghanistan are not eternal but Russia will be an eternal partner of these countries and if, God forbid, the situation deteriorates for security and the people of the countries, they will remember Russia.”
The Russian offensive has included some harsh words for Rakhmon’s regime. In a vicious editorial published by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, said that if Russian troops withdraw, Tajikistan will suffer, positioned as it is just across the river from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
“For some reason Dushanbe believes that Russia needs the base more than Dushanbe does. Delusions run deep,” he wrote. “Apparently, someone in this impoverished and extremely corrupt country is hell-bent on making a quick buck, and it could come either from Moscow or Washington, depending on who pays more for the right to have a military base in Tajikistan.”
Khramchikhin also cautions Dushanbe against depending too much on the West: “[H]opes for American protection make no sense whatsoever. In general, it is absurd to presume that the Americans will ever go as far as spilling the blood of their soldiers to help out [Uzbekistan’s President Islam] Karimov or Rakhmon.”
Russian suspicions were boosted on July 6 when a delegation of US congressmen visited Tajikistan and said the country would make a fine alternative to neighboring Kyrgyzstan for a future American base. This comes only days after Uzbekistan excused itself from a Moscow-led security group, ostensibly to jump into bed with the West.
For their part, Tajik officials are mostly quiet -- perhaps uncomfortable with such public confrontations -- while pursuing what in Central Asia is often described as a “multi-vector” foreign policy, seeking assistance and investment from Russia, but also from the West and China. Indeed, Beijing just promised Rakhmon $1 billion in investment last month.
No one can blame the Tajiks for wanting to balance these big players. Russia, as analyst Alexey Malashenko pointed out in a briefing for the Carnegie Moscow Center recently, has not been a reliable friend. But when push comes to shove, with 45 percent of Tajikistan’s economy dependent on remittances from Tajik migrant laborers in Russia, and Rakhmon eyeing presidential elections next year, Dushanbe does not have a lot of leverage.