Russian Ground Forces commander Vladimir Chirkin said recently that Russia and Tajikistan will soon achieve “results that will be advantageous for both sides” from the protracted talks between the two on the fate of Russia’s military base near the capital of Dushanbe.
Chirkin went on to claim that the draft agreement allows for Russian retention of the base for 49 years, rent free, as it has been for the past decade.
The Tajik Foreign Ministry, however, stated that General Chirkin’s claims were “premature” and “groundless,” stressing that negotiations continue behind closed doors.
Tajik foreign minister Khamorokhon Zarifi indicated in a statement on Monday that the negotiations were progressing. He was disparaging about Russian defense officials revealing details of the talks to the public, saying that “in a normal, law governed state, there is a specific responsibility for these actions, as this is disclosure of state secrets and important information.”
When the Soviet Union dissolved at the close of 1991, the 201st Motorized Rifle Division was stationed in Tajikistan. Inherited by the Russian Federation, the division remained in Tajikistan throughout its civil war at the request of the Tajik successor government, headed by Emomalii Rahmon who is still president.
In 1999, Russian and Tajik defense ministers signed a deal allowing for the construction of a new base for the 201st with a ten year lease. The base, which opened in 2004, is Russia’s largest outside of its borders with about 7,000 servicemen stationed there permanently. The agreement is due to expire in 2014.
A point of contention between the two sides has been Tajikistan’s demands that Russia pay at least $250 million per year for the site. Under the current agreement, Russia does not pay rent but contributes military and technical assistance to Tajikistan.
An unnamed Tajik source, cited by Reuters, claims that General Chirkin is correct: Tajikistan has agreed to lease the base free of charge for 49 years. Russian assistance in training and arming the Tajik military plays a role in the agreement but the deal will be based upon the fact that Tajikistan “has no trump cards in its play with Russia.”
The poorest among fifteen former Soviet republics, Tajikistan has an unstable border with Afghanistan, an at-times unfriendly border with Uzbekistan and a flailing economy propped up by cotton, drugs and corruption.
Additionally, 45 percent of the Tajik economy is dependent on remittance from Tajik migrant workers in Russia. Dushanbe indeed has few cards to play against Russia, though it is seeking assistance from all corners, including China and the United States.
Modern Russia is no stranger to using its size and history to pressure the Central Asian states but in this case, the crushing weight of the scheduled NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring Tajikistan to Russian terms in due course. Central Asian leaders have little to gain from denying Russian power in the region — though they are trying to maneuver themselves into favorable positions by 2014.
As Russian deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin said recently, “the forces of NATO in Afghanistan are not eternal but Russia will be an eternal partner of these countries and if, God forbid, the situation deteriorates for security and the people of the countries, they will remember Russia.”