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Andrey Kazantsev

Doctor of Political Science, Director of the Analytical Centre of Institute of International Studies, MGIMO University

201 division, traditionally believed to be one of the most combat-effective, is the core of the Russian military base in Tajikistan. From the viewpoint of Russian interests it’s the front defense line against the threats of Afghanistan-Central Asia axis. The Russian base is pivotal to maintain stability in Tajikistan itself. Dushanbe is willing to “bargain” the price of Russian troops’ presence, but inevitably will make concessions to Moscow.

201 division, traditionally believed to be one of the most combat-effective, is the core of the Russian military base in Tajikistan. From the viewpoint of Russian interests it’s the front defense line against the threats of Afghanistan-Central Asia axis. The Russian base is pivotal to maintain stability in Tajikistan itself. Dushanbe is willing to “bargain” the price of Russian troops’ presence, but inevitably will make concessions to Moscow.

What strategic tasks are resolved by the Russian base and who benefits from its existence?

To understand the functions of Russian military base 201 in maintaining the security of Tajikistan we should came back to the days immediately following the declaration of the country’s independence.

Division acts as a forward defense line against the threats of Afghanistan-Central Asia axis.

When the civil war began in this ex-Soviet republic, Russian division 201 hosted by the country at a certain time was the only force able to deter the brutality of warlords. E.g. during the skirmishes in Dushanbe, the base gave shelter to women and children behind the all-round defense. Later, Russian militaries and border guards offered a strong support to the new Tajik authorities led by Emomali Rakhmon in their struggle against the intervention of opposing troops from Afghanistan. Equally important was the role of Russian militaries in the confrontation between the leaderships of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan manifested, inter alia, in the invasion of Colonel M.Khudoyberdiev squadron from Uzbekistan territory. And finally, with the approaching of Talibs to the Tajik-Afghani border Russian troops became the upmost guarantors of security in the country against the Afghanistan threat.

At this time the legal status of Russian troops in Tajikistan was enshrined in the Collective Security Treaty of 1992, the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (1993) and a special Treaty on the Status and Deployment of Russian Military Base in Tajikistan (1999). The status of the base was also secured due to Tajikistan membership in CSTO. The Treaty on the Status and Terms of Deployment for the Russian Military Base in the Republic was ratified on October 17, 2004. The base opening ceremony took place the same day.

Payment for the base is a kind of “market bargaining”. Tajikistan wants to get the maximum price for the security provided to it.

From the viewpoint of Russian interests the division acts as a forward defense line against the threats of Afghanistan-Central Asia axis. It provides support to Tajik guards on the Afghani border (this direction is the most dangerous in view of drug trafficking). Moreover, the division may become the base for CSTO forces deployment and it this capacity serves the strategic goals of post-Soviet space reintegration. Deputy General Secretary of CSTO Valery Semerikov remarked: “Russian base in Tajikistan is an important element of the security system in Central Asia”.

The base is important for Russia, but it’s of vital significance for Tajikistan itself. The base is gaining particular relevance taking into account the growing Talibs’ threat that is expected after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. The security situation in Tajikistan is also deteriorating. Moreover, the base acts as a restraining factor in view of tense relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Dushanbe made an indirect territorial claim to Tashkent on Tajik-speaking Bukhara while Uzbekistan in its turn blocks the construction of a hydraulic power plant in the neighboring country.

In this context the question of payment for the base is a kind of “market bargaining”. Tajikistan wants to get the maximum price for the security provided to it. The major reason stems from hard economic situation in the country. Tajikistan tries to “play” on the controversy between Russia and the USA. There are no American military bases in the country yet (but there is a NATO base used by the Europeans), but the issue is regularly raised by mass media with reference to anonymous sources. Dushanbe also tries to use India-Pakistan confrontation to its advantage. For example, for quite a time there have been rumors that India will get the access to the Ayni military base in return for economic assistance. Such a policy is quite typical for Central Asia states in the context of a new “Big Game” (http://www.fundeh.org/files/publications/132/kazancev_a_a_bolshaya_igra_s_neizvestnymi_pravilam.pdf). Within their “multi-vector” policies they get the maximum benefit from the strategic competition of big powers for this region.

What’s there at the base?

At noted above, the core of the Russian military base in Tajikistan is the 201st motor rifle division, traditionally believed to be one of the most combat-effective units in the RF Army. According to the open information, the division has on duty about 7 thousand troops and three Motor Rifle Regiments – the 92nd (Dushanbe), the 148th (Kulob) and the 191st (Kurgan-Tyube), as well as the 998th Artillery Regiment (Dushanbe), the 1098th Air Defense Regiment (Dushanbe) and an Air Group with seven helicopters. Dushanbe also hosts the 670th Air Group (five SU-25 fighters) and a battery of MLRS “Grad” BM-21 in Kurgan-Tyube. This base is the largest military formation of Russia outside the mother country. In addition Russia has in Tajikistan an optical-electronic complex “Okno” (Nurak) for the outer space surveillance. It is designed for the detection and identification of space objects and monitors Russian orbital group.

Can Tajikistan use the base for political or economic blackmailing?

Formally the 201st military base in hosted by Tajikistan free of charge due to the 2004 Treaty. Russia promised to invest about $2bln into the country, but hasn’t honored its promise (though, money transfers from Tajik workers in Russia is one of the most important sources of income for the country and can be added to the “formula” of Russian-Tajik relations). In 2004 optical-electronic center “Nurak” was leased to Russia for 49 years at a symbolic price of 1 Somoni (about 0.21 Dollar) per year. In return Russian wrote-off the Tajik debt amounting to $242m.

Tajikistan needs the Russian military base more than Russia does.

Recently there has emerged the tendency to dramatize the base presence issue. For example, Tajik forums in the Internet have been actively discussing possible closing of the base as a reaction to the extradition of Tajik migrants from Russia. Already in 2009 mass media mentioned that Dushanbe asks $300m per year as a rent.

The lease agreement for the base expires in 2014, though the agreement implies automatic extension for 5 year periods unless one of the parties objects. On September 2, 2011 D.Medvedev and E.Rakhmon discussed the extension of the lease for 49 years. It was agreed to sign the relevant document in the first quarter of 2012. At that time in return for the lease period extension Russia promised to provide training and new equipment to the Tajik army.

Very few in Tajikistan were pleased with the agreement. Immediately after the visit of D. Medvedev to Dushanbe in September 2011 the “statement of the fifty” was signed by Tajik intellectuals. The statement suggested that the authorities “conduct a referendum and ask the Tajik people whether they want the Russian military base on their land or not”.

On February 25, 2012 Presidents E.Rakhmon and D. Medvedev discussed the lease extension issue by phone. Ambassador of Tajikistan in Russia remarked that his country considers two options: either receiving the payment of $300m or receiving military technical assistance.

While exerting pressure on Russia on the rent issue Tajikistan simultaneously makes positive steps towards Moscow. On February 29, 2012 the Lower Chamber of Tajikistan Parliament ratified the Tajik-Russian Border Guard Cooperation agreement.

Evaluating the possibilities of Dushanbe to use the presence of Russian troops in the country in order to exert pressure on Moscow, we should first of all remember that Tajikistan needs the Russian military base more than Russia does. As a matter of principle, E.Rakhmon could have used American troops instead of Russian ones to stabilize the situation in the country. Dushanbe always attempts to use this hidden threat. But this alternative is yet not realistic which is well understood in Moscow. Mainly, because Washington will continue to build up pressure on the E.Rakhmon government pushing it towards democracy and respect for human rights that could weaken the position of the President. In addition – the key economic partner of Tajikistan today is PRC and while Beijing is rather positive about the presence of Russia in Central Asia, it doesn’t welcome American military bases in the region.

Dushanbe is sure to be willing to “bargain”, but inevitably will make concessions to Moscow.

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