Residents of Tajikistan's southern city of Kulyab are lamenting the imminent departure of the Russian military presence there, which is slated to move to the capital, Dushanbe in two months.
News of the base closure broke last week, after which it emerged that the Russian soldiers in Kulyab would be moving to other facilities within Tajikistan and that the Kulyab facility would be handed over to the government of Tajikistan.
"The redeployment was agreed with the Ministry of Defense of Tajikistan and is going according to plan. It is in the interests of increasing the military readiness and the growth of the military potential of the units," said Yaroslav Roshchupkin, a spokesman for Russia's Central Military District, reported RIA Novosti. "The military base in Kulyab will be handed over to the jurisdiction of the government organs of Tajikistan."
The overall size of the Russian military presence in Tajikistan won't change, Roshchupkin added. "Of the three Russian military objects in the region, two will remain -- the Kurgan-Tyube motor rifle regiment and the 'Okno' optical-electrionic structure of the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces."
But that didn't really answer the question of why the move was being made. It's particularly curious given the amount of attention Russia has been paying to the purported threat of radical Islamists militants spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia. Kulyab is only about 40 kilometers from the Afghan border, and as such would seem to be ideally placed to protect against that spillover threat.
So what's really going on? Experts surveyed by The Bug Pit, on condition of anonymity, said the move likely had more to do with Russian military bureaucracy and the efficiency of combining facilities than with any strategic considerations. The 2012 agreement signed between Russia and Tajikistan on the base presence said that the two sides would "examine" moving military facilities outside the cities of Kulyob and Kurgan-Tyube within five years, so this is likely related to that.
Kulyab has been the site of several conflicts between Russian soldiers at the base and townspeople, including an especially sharp one this summer after a group of drunk Russian soldiers got into a brawl with locals.
But even with those kinds of incidents, the residents of Kulyab valued the base's presence and are distraught at the prospect of its departure, a report by Dushanbe newspaper Asia-Plus found. There were conflicts, "but this didn't mean that the local population wanted [the Russian soldiers] to leave the city," said Mirzo Begmatov, the head of the local World War II veterans association. "All the incidents that happened were like domestic squabbles, we never came up against intentional actions of the Russian soldiers against the representatives of the titular nationality," he said, referring to Tajiks.
The primary concern of Kulyab residents, according to Asia Plus's report, seemed to be the fate of the base's school, which was the town's best, and its only Russian-language school. With the base's departure, the local students who went to the school now don't know where they'll study. "It's like we're living through the second collapse of the Soviet Union, it's that uncertain," said one father of two students at the Russian school.
Another issue was economic; many locals depended on the base directly or indirectly for employment. "Now all of Kulyab is only talking about this," said the editor of the local Russian-language newspaper Kulyabskaya Pravda, Rustam Odinbayev, told Asia Plus. "All the residents are upset. You see we don't have working enterprises in the city, and for the local population the 201st base is like a factory, which feeds people."
Of apparently tertiary concern was security. "From Kulyab to the Afghan border is only 40 kilometers," Odinbayev continued. "I don't understand what's going on there and of course, we feel calmer when there are extra military units next to us."