A series of Russian soldiers behaving badly in Tajikistan has ignited debate in that country about the presence of the Russian military base there.
The most recent incident, which appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back, was a July 28 street fight in Kulyob, near a part of the Russian base, involving "seven drunken Russian soldiers who had stripped down to their underwear began dancing, singing, and 'yelling loudly' in a residential area of the city center," RFE/RL reported. Locals reportedly complained to the soldiers, who then were reinforced with other soldiers from the base, and it resulted in a brawl.
This follows recent cases involving two Russian soldiers allegedly murdering a Tajik taxi driver last fall, and another soldier badly beating a waiter in a Kulyob restaurant earlier this year.
Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division is based in three facilities around Tajikistan: near Dushanbe, Kulyob, and Qurghon-Teppa. Its roughly 7,000 troops make it Russia's foreign largest military presence. In 2012 Tajikistan agreed to extend the presence of the base until 2042 in exchange for military aid, discounts on fuel, and easier conditions for Tajikistani labor migrants to Russia.
That 2012 agreement lays out what happens if a Russian soldier at the base commits a crime, and it's very favorable to the Russian side: "Persons from the staff of the Russian military base and their family members are immune. Without agreement of the authorized body of the Russian side persons from the staff of the Russian military base and their family members are not subject to arrest, with the exception of cases of their arrest at the scene of a crime. In that case the relevant organs of the Tajikistan side will immediately inform the relevant organs of the Russian side, which will carry out corresponding procedural actions with respect to said persons." There is, however, an exception for "suits involving the death or bodily harm."
It's worth noting that that seems to differ significantly from the agreement Russia has with Armenia over its base there. "On issues of crimes or other violations of the law committed on the territory of the Republic of Armenia by personnel of the Russian military base, and family members of the personnel, the legislation of the Republic of Armenia applies, and its competent organs operate."
There is some disagreement within Tajikistan on what the law says; RFE/RL quoted a source in the Kulyob security services who said Russian soldiers have "diplomatic immunity, and so every violation of the law committed by them is investigated by Russian investigative bodies."
But a source in Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense told Asia Plus something different: “According to agreements reached between the two countries, servicemen of the Russian military base deployed in Tajikistan committing crime in Tajikistan fall under the jurisdiction of Tajikistan’s legislation and criminal proceedings are instituted against them by relevant Tajik bodies,” the source said. “On completion of investigation the criminal case is handed over to the relevant bodies of the Russian side and they must to inform the Tajik side of the decision they made."
The Bug Pit consulted a Tajikistani lawyer, who asked not to be named, who said that the Kulyob official appears to be right (except that to say "diplomatic immunity" is not correct, given that it's only immunity granted by this agreement) and that the exception for "death or bodily harm" appears to apply to civil cases, not criminal ones.
In any case, the case seems to have resonated with the public in a way that previous incidents haven't. The Tajikistan news site Avesta has an interesting roundup of elite opinion on the incident and the base in general. "This incident, which our correspondent witnessed... is not unique," said Saiyefi Mizrob, the editor of the newspaper USSR. "Things like this happen regularly. I go to Kulyob sometimes, I go to restaurants and inevitably I see Russians, serving at the base, almost in their underwear together with their wives and children. Is this decent? Shouldn't they take into account the local mentality? We are almost all Muslims, with our own mentailty, and that has to be taken into account, and act according to the saying, 'you don't go with your own Talmud into someone else's synagogue.'"
As with the taxi driver murder last year, Russian media have barely touched the story of the fight in Kulyob, and it's been advanced mainly by the U.S.-funded RFE/RL. Many see an ulterior geopolitical motive in this, reports Global Voices. (Indeed, in another case of Russian military misbehavior, RFE/RL also is the only outlet who has reported on live-fire military exercises in the Shuroabad region which have forced local residents to stay inside their homes four days a week for the last month.)
However, even under the best of circumstances public opinion has little effect on political decisionmaking in Tajikistan, and that's even more the case here, since the current agreement is in force until 2042.