Ever since Russia’s Defense Ministry announced it is to convert its military presence in Tajikistan from a division into a brigade, watchers of the region have been scratching their heads trying to work out the significance of the development.
Authorities in Tajikistan appear no more certain than anybody else what to make of it.
Russian news agency TASS on January 30 cited the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, as saying that the reformatting of the base would make Russian forces more mobile, while reducing the volume of enlisted personnel.
“All the same, the role [of the base] as a Russian outpost in Central Asia and guarantor for peace and stability in the region will remain unchanged,” Zarudnitsky was quoted as saying.
A drastic reorganization of Russian forces in Tajikistan has been in progress since late last year, when news emerged that troops were redeploying away from a base near the southern city of Kulyab. The explanation for the move offered at the time was that it was part of plans to enhance combat readiness.
The motivations for the conversion to brigade status appear even more nebulous, and even Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov confessed to being in the dark.
“Questions about changes to the organizational and staff structure of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan, as far as increasing or decreasing its size goes, have not been discussed at the official level,” Aslov told Deutsche Welle.
It seems remarkable that Russia’s armed forces are adopting strategic military decisions without bothering to consult their hosts, but the episode is characteristic of Moscow’s high-handed attitude toward Dushanbe in its dealings over the base.
Tajikistan has met its quota for the fall military conscription drive 10 days ahead of time this year, state news agency Khovar reported on November 20.
If true, it is a remarkable achievement for a country where so many able-bodied young men have left for overseas in search of work.
This year’s conscript recruitment drive was tinged with bloodshed after two officers with the military mobilization office were killed after being attacked in the capital, Dushanbe, early November 7. Two men have been arrested on suspicion of committing the killings, although authorities have said they still are uncertain over the motive. Investigators said after the incident that the killings were not linked to recruitment drive, although since the two suspects are unemployed and of conscription age, it seems possible that assertion may need to be revisited.
Khovar said the first provinces to meet the quota were Khatlon and Gorno-Badakhshan, followed by Dushanbe, the Sughd province and finally the Districts of Republican Subordination, an area that surrounds Dushanbe.
The two month-long fall military enlistment season had been due to end on November 30. Male adults aged 18 to 27 are eligible for call-up, which boosts the ranks of the military by up to 16,000 draftees every year, according to Defense Ministry figures.
As Khovar notes, there are 600,000 people of eligible age, but 150,000 are exempt for various reasons, while another 100,000 are working abroad. It is unclear though if that larger figure also includes those that have already done their service. The figure for the number of people living abroad may strike some as seeming surprisingly low. An exact calculation on that is difficult as many young men travel to Russia for work without going through much of the necessary bureaucratic procedures.
Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news website is reporting that Russian troops are pulling out of their base in the southern city of Kulyab in an unexpected and, so far, unexplained development.
The website based its report on November 18 on an official order from Russian military command obtained by local residents with ties to the base.
“We inform you that in connection with a [Russian Central Military District] directive, this military facility is being relocated as of October 15, 2015. The relocation will be completed within two months of receipt of this directive,” reads the summons, as reproduced by Asia-Plus.
No details are provided about where the garrison is to be relocated.
Kulyab is one of the three cities in Tajikistan where the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division is deployed — the others are Dushanbe and Kurgan-Tyube.
Russian troops numbers in the country are estimated to stand at around between 6,000 and 7,000.
The presence of the base in Kulyab provokes mixed feelings. While adding to the local economy, the military presence has also been at the root of much scandal in recent years.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in July on an incident of drunken Russian soldiers going on the rampage in Kulyab and getting into a mass brawl with some local men.
In an earlier incident in February, a Russian officer was charged with grievously assaulting a waiter in Kulyab, RFE/RL reported.
And although the base is a valuable economic input, even that aspect has on occasion fallen short of people’s expectations.
A soldier at the Russian military base in Tajikistan is suspected by police of murdering a Tajik citizen in an occurrence with apparent echoes of another killing in the country last year.
State news agency Khovar reported on November 10 that Tajik and Russian law enforcement officers jointly detained the suspect. Officials have said the killing took place on the grounds of the Russian military base in the capital, Dushanbe.
The Russian Defense Ministry is dispatching a Central Military District commission to investigate the circumstances that led to the suspected killing.
Khovar named the suspect as Ivan Scherbakov, a senior lieutenant with the 201st Russian military base, and the victim as Shoira Jabborova.
Scherbakov told investigators that he had no memory of the events of which he stands accused as he was heavily intoxicated at the time, Khovar reported.
Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Dushanbe to express its concern over the case.
“In the meeting, the ambassador was informed that these events are not in conformity with the spirit of traditional friendship and strategic partnership between our two nations,” the ministry said in an emailed statement.
The Foreign Ministry said it demanded that Russia objectively assess the incident and take necessary measures to avoid such acts being committed by Russian military personnel.
The fate of the accused will be watched closely, since murders committed by Russian soldiers have in the past led — not only in Tajikistan — to disputes about jurisdiction.
Two officers with the military mobilization office in Tajikistan were killed over the weekend in a yet unexplained incident in the capital, police said in a statement on November 9.
The Interior Ministry said that around 7:20 a.m. on November 7, unknown people attacked a group of four officers with knives in the Sino district and then fled the scene. Major Pulod Mirzoyev died on the spot, while warrant officer Hamza Nasibov succumbed to his injuries in the hospital several hours later.
Police are now trying to confirm the identity of the attackers and are appealing to the public for help and offering a $10,000 reward for any information leading to arrest.
The details of the case are still hazy, but there will already be strong suspicions the cause of the incident may have been to do with the work the military officers were performing. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has cited Defense Ministry spokesman Faridun Mahmadaliev as denying the link.
Tajikistan is currently going through its bi-annual two month-long military enlistment season. Male adults aged 18 to 27 are eligible for call-up, which boosts the ranks of the military by up to 16,000 draftees every year, according to Defense Ministry figures. The autumn call-up season opens on October 1 and ends on November 30.
Radio Free Europe’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported earlier this year that some 600,000 Tajik men fall within the 18-27 age group, but that many are exempt for reasons of ill-health or because they are the only sons in the famliy. The conscription drive is further complicated by the large number of eligible and able-bodied men living abroad for work.
With the neutralization of General Abduhalim Nazarzoda complete, Tajikistan is on the search for a replacement deputy defense minister.
Asia-Plus website has revealed a likely possible candidate whose name will come as a surprise to scholars of the country’s recent history: Bakhtiyor Langariyev.
On October 6, the website reported that Langariyev — whose brother Suhrob was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 on charges of drugs and arms trafficking — had returned to Tajikistan after a seven-year absence.
Around the time of his departure, which coincided with the period of Suhrob’s arrest in the city of Kulyab, Bakhtiyor Langariyev was head of the Dushanbe anti-organized crime department .
Another unnamed source cited by Asia-Plus suggests that yet another Langariyev brother, Faizali, could be named deputy defense minister and that Bakhtiyor could take up a position as head of a defense ministry special battalion. The website cites people close to 44-year old Bakhtiyor Langariyev as saying he is currently doing business in other former Soviet states and in the United Arab Emirates.
The appointments would mark a remarkable return to the fold for a family that, although once staunch loyalists of President Emomali Rahmon, eventually fell foul of the ruling regime.
Another of the four Langariyev brothers, Langari Langariyev, served as a leading field commander during the civil war in the pro-Rahmon Popular Front and was killed in combat in October 1992.
The criminal activities of Suhrob Langariyev appear to have precipitated the family’s demise, but as always in Tajikistan, there is more to matters than meets the eye.
Turkmenistan’s president has reshuffled the country’s top security officials in a major change of personnel that suggests creeping anxiety over unrest on the border with Afghanistan.
State media on October 6 reported that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov named the head of his praetorian guard and close confidante, Guichgeldy Hojaberdiev, to head up the National Security Ministry, the successor agency to the KGB.
Hojaberdiev takes over from Yaylym Berdiyev, who had occupied his post since 2011 and has now been appointed Defense Minister, replacing Begench Gundogdiyev.
Gundogdiyev will in turn take over as commander of Turkmenistan’s naval forces.
Berdymukhamedov announced the personnel changes during a session of the state national security council, portions of which were shown on television.
Taking on their new roles, all the officials read out a vow of loyalty to the president and kissed the national flag as they kneeled.
At the meeting, Berdymukhamedov expressed his satisfaction with the work carried out by the National Security Ministry, which he said was responsible for upholding the foundations of the constitutional order. The president said that it was important to strengthen state security to ensure future prosperity.
The word was then given to the head of the state border service, Murad Islamov, who reported on his agency’s efforts to protect the country’s frontier so far this year. State media offered no specifics other than to cite Islamov as saying that the border service is “thoroughly upholding the key principles of Turkmenistan defensive military doctrine.”
The Russian military is handing Astana more than a million hectares of land it has been renting in Kazakhstan, which hopes to use the territory to boost its extractive industries.
During talks in Moscow on April 16, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Kazakhstani counterpart Imangali Tasmagambetov finalized the deal that will see 1.6 million hectares of land that is part of two military testing grounds ceded to Kazakhstan, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“Unused territories and sectors where communications routes and mineral wealth are located will be removed from the lease and handed over to Kazakhstan,” Shoigu said.
The land is part of two military facilities operated by Russia in Kazakhstan: the Saryshagan anti-ballistic missile testing ground at Lake Balkhash in the southeast and a flight testing center in Aktobe in the energy-rich west.
“We have taken into account all the desires of the Kazakhstani side in removing the land from the lease,” Shoigu added.
For Kazakhstan, the deal reasserts its sovereignty over the territory and opens up the opportunity to build infrastructure and prospect for energy and mineral resources, just as Astana launches a program to increase Kazakhstan’s proven reserves.
“This agreement is linked to the economic interests of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the country’s Ministry of Defense said in a tight-lipped statement. The land “will be used in the interests of the oil-and-gas sector, the construction of housing, railroads, and highways, and for other needs.”
For Kyrgyzstan observers, reports that kerosene is being stolen from a Russian airbase and illegally sold on the open market will hardly surprise. But it is still embarrassing.
Last week Kyrgyz authorities formally began investigating why a truck stopped leaving the Kant Airbase last month was found carrying 13 tons of stolen kerosene.
Details about the October 7 incident that triggered the November 11 investigation are still scarce. The driver, who appeared to have entered the Kant base without documents, has not been identified in press reports.
It seems unlikely a theft from the heavily guarded base would be possible without the connivance of Russian soldiers stationed there, Ruslan Umarov, who is heading the investigation for the State Service for the Fight Against Economic Crimes, conceded on November 12. “We have a circle of suspects. Currently we are clarifying the market channels, buyers and suppliers. It is possible that military servicemen at the Kant Airbase are involved in the case,” Umarov is quoted as saying by several Kyrgyz news outlets.
Kant receives its kerosene, which it uses it to fuel fighter planes and other aircraft, from a Kyrgyz-Russian joint-stock company partly owned by Russian energy behemoth Gazprom: Gazprom Neft Aero-Kyrgyzstan. The company has friends in high places. Sapar Isakov, President Almazbek Atambayev’s chief foreign policy advisor, was formerly chair of the company’s board.
The suicides of two soldiers on two consecutive days have again highlighted festering problems in Kazakhstan’s armed forces.
One conscript hanged himself at a military unit Astana on April 4 while the next day a young private killed himself in a military unit in Karaganda by shooting himself in the neck, the Zakon.kz website reported.
Two 20-year-old privates were arrested on suspicion of driving the soldier in Karaganda, in northeastern Kazakhstan, to suicide by hazing – the practice of army bullying common in many post-Soviet militaries. The arrests suggest Kazakhstan’s military is starting to take hazing – a phenomenon that has for years been quietly tolerated – seriously.
Last June the commander of a border post near China was arrested with two other soldiers on suspicion of hazing after 11 conscripts deserted from the Tersayryk unit in northeastern Kazakhstan to protest their treatment.
In October a military court sentenced the commander to three years in jail and the other two soldiers to seven years each.
Kazakhstan’s Border Guard Service, which falls under the remit of the powerful KNB domestic intelligence service, has had a troubled year, starting with a bizarre mass slaughter in a remote outpost near the border with China last May that was blamed on rogue conscript Vladislav Chelakh.