It might have been the Tajik president’s birthday, but Vladimir Putin got what he wanted.
As expected, defense talks dominated the Russian president’s October 4-5 trip to Tajikistan. Before Putin landed in Dushanbe, the future of Russia’s military bases in the country was the source of boundless speculation and conflicting statements from officials on both sides.
In the end, on October 5 defense ministers signed a deal to keep some 7,000 Russian troops stationed in Tajikistan through 2042. But Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rakhmon, managed to save face, embracing a playful Putin and receiving some crucial support for his ailing economy.
Under the new agreement, the 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan – Russia’s largest posting of land forces abroad – can keep its three bases “practically for free,” the Asia-Plus news agency quoted Putin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov as saying. Russia, in turn, promised to help modernize the Tajik military and accept more Tajik migrant laborers.
The current lease for the bases expires in 2014, when NATO troops are expected to pull out of Afghanistan. Moscow is concerned that resulting violence could spill over the long and porous border with Tajikistan.
The carefully scripted visit may help Rakhmon, up for reelection next year, domestically. Most Tajiks have a favorable impression of Russia and consider Russia their country’s most important partner. In mid-2011, according to a Gallup poll, 94 percent of Tajiks approved of the “Russian leadership.” In the upcoming election, “the Kremlin’s support will be decisive,” Reuters quoted political scientist Zafar Abdullayev as saying.
So it’s no surprise the backslapping featured widely in Tajik state media. Moreover, Putin didn’t forget Rakhmon’s 60th birthday. Early in the day, in comments carried by the state news agency, Khovar, Putin told Rakhmon, “I’ve always known you are a wise man. You invited us right on your birthday, lured us one might say, since it’s impossible to say no to anything on a birthday. We will have to sign everything that you ask of us.”
Putin also came bearing gifts, hand delivering some military aid of sorts: Just two days before his own 60th, the Russian president, wearing a tie that matched his host’s, presented Rakhmon with a specially engraved Russian-manufactured sniper rifle.
Of course, Rakhmon, who said Putin’s visit opens a new chapter in relations between the countries, did not have a lot of choice about Russia’s basing intentions. Over a million Tajiks work in Russia as labor migrants. Should Moscow send some of them home, the conventional wisdom goes, they could be a major destabilizing factor in impoverished Tajikistan. (And their remittances amount to the equivalent of 45 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP.)
Regarding the bases, there were some hints earlier this week that Putin would not take “no” for an answer. On October 1, Moscow raised its duty on petrol deliveries to Tajikistan by over 6 percent. Small changes in the price of gasoline can be devastating to average Tajiks, roughly half of whom live below the poverty line. Few in the region have forgotten how, in 2010, a sudden increase in the tax on petrol deliveries to neighboring Kyrgyzstan helped push then President Kurmanbek Bakiyev out of office.
Reuters cited a Tajik official as saying the duties would now be removed.
Energy cooperation occupies an important place in bilateral relations, but few concrete details were available by Friday afternoon. Earlier, Ushakov, the Putin aide, told Interfax the two presidents would discuss energy projects, such as Russian state-controlled giant Gazprom’s prospecting for gas in the country, as well as Gazpromneft’s filling station and fuel storage facilities. Besides these, "plans to build small and medium hydropower plants on Tajikistan's internal rivers are on the current agenda," Ushakov said October 4.
Russian officials regularly express concern about the fading use of Russian in Tajikistan. Though Rakhmon’s birthday happens to be the official Day of the State Language (Tajik), local officials did hold a week of events designed to honor the Russian language shortly before Putin’s visit.