Tajikistan has replaced its long-serving minister of defense, Sherali Khairulloyev, raising questions as to whether President Emomali Rahmon intends to take the country's military and defense policy in a different direction.
Khairulloyev, who had held his post since 1995, will be replaced by Sherali Mirzo, currently head of the country's border guards. The shakeup is part of a much larger government reshuffling, with many ministers not in power ministries also losing their jobs. So it seems likely that Khairulloyev's dismissal has less to do with his performance than with an internal maneuvering by Rahmon to consolidate his position.
Nevertheless, the move comes at a sensitive time for Tajikistan and its security. The departure of U.S. and NATO combat troops next year from Afghanistan has raised fears in the region that instability could spill over into Central Asia. And Tajikistan, with a long, porous border and suffering from precarious stability itself, is thought by many to be the weak link in Central Asian security. Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization are providing substantial aid to Tajikistan's border forces ahead of 2014.
The Dushanbe newspaper Asia Plus, in a roundup of the shakeups, has a helpful table, listing the "Tajikistan's most acute problems" and "who is answering for them." The problem Khairulloyev is answering for is "ineffective military operations." Khairulloyev led last summer's military operation in Khorog, which by nearly any measure was a failure: not only did it fail in its stated objective (to capture the local commanders the central government blamed for the murder of a security official) but it also hardened the resolve of the people in the Pamirs to resist control from Dushanbe. It is widely believed, both in Dushanbe and Khorog, that the government will eventually try again to exert its control over Khorog. But it won't be Khairulloyev in charge next time.
The experts surveyed for the Asia Plus piece favorably reviewed his replacement: "Meanwhile, Mirzo is characterized as a good warrior. He graduated Perm Military Commanders Training School and has worked in the defense system his whole life. 'He is a fair person. He never makes decisions rashly. This is a good candidate for the post of defense minister,' the experts characterize him."
It's not yet known where Khairulloyev will go, but he is 65 and Asia Plus says that their sources say he will retire. He is famous in Tajikistan for being a prodigious drinker, and many have speculated that his health may have suffered as a result. Khairulloyev was the source of one entertaining U.S. diplomatic cable from 2006, when he hosted a going-away lunch for then-ambassador Richard Hoagland. At the meeting, Khairulloyev expounded on the need for the country to balance its military relations with other countries:
Khairulloyev apologized several times for "misunderstandings and missed opportunities" in the past in U.S.-Tajik military relations. He asserted repeatedly that he expects an increasingly smooth and productive relationship. He said he has come to understand Tajikistan must have a number of equal partners, not just one [Russia], if it is to prosper.
And he had some pointed comments about Georgia and then-president Mikheil Saakashvili:
Minister Khairulloyev returned several times to NATO and Georgia. He repeatedly asked, "Why does NATO want a country like Georgia? Even the Warsaw Pact didn't subsume losers!" He asked if NATO will improve Georgia's "hopeless" economy. He asked why the United States "indulges the adolescent" President Saakashvili. The only possibly explanation, he asserted, is to "stick your finger in Moscow's eye." He added, "When Stalin created the Georgian Socialist Republic, he threw in Abkhazia and South Ossetia because Georgians on their own were a `fly speck.' Without Abhkazia and South Ossetia," he alleged, "Georgia has no hope of existing."
And, apparently there was a lot of drinking. And Hoagland reported that he represented the United States ably:
The Ambassador lost track of the toasts after the tenth. His shot-glass held vodka. The minister's high-ball glass was kept filled with un-cut Scotch. Late into the lunch, the minister was slurring badly and was not walking a straight line. Nevertheless, as the Ambassador kept attempting a gracious retreat, the Minister insisted on showing him "secret rooms" in the ministry. Each "secret room" was merely another public conference room with a large fresh flower display and - again and again - another round of toasts set out. ...
Although this drunk-fest is how many old-guard former Soviets do mutual business, it was most unusual for an American guest. It was, to a degree, a mark of respect. We would not be surprised if President Rahmonov had ordered Khairulloyev to "do something for the departing Ambassador," and we rather wonder if this may have
been a sort of valedictory by an old-guard security minister who suspects his days of service are numbered. Whatever, we were pleased to have drunk Khairulloyev well under the table.