TAJIKISTAN: Russia’s Growing Military Presence in Tajikistan

Sunday 19 October 2014

Date: 18 October 2014

Source: Silk Road Reporters

Type: News

Keywords: Militarization

While Tajikistan may soon join the Russian dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Moscow’s presence is overwhelmingly felt in the military sphere. How pervasive is Russia’s military presence in Tajikistan?

Since the Dec. 1991 disintegration of the USSR, Tajikistan permitted Russia to maintain a military presence to guard their border with Afghanistan, the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division. While most of these Russian-led forces are now local Tajik noncommissioned officers and soldiers, the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, with roughly 6,000 personnel stationed in garrisons on the outskirts of the capital Dushanbe, Kurgan-Tyube and Kulyab, is Russia’s largest military deployment outside the country.

When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, an economic tsunami devastated Central Asia, and no former republic was more affected than Tajikistan. Dependent on aluminum and cotton exports and with its traditional Russian markets gone, the year after its independence, Tajikistan slid into a vicious five-year civil war between the former Communist leadership and Islamic militants as the country was ravaged by hyperinflation. The 201st Motorized Rifle Division largely sat out the conflict except for intermittent clashes, as it was officially neutral. In June 1992, the formerly Soviet border guards stationed in Tajikistan came under direct Russian authority; the following year all Russian border troops were placed under the Russian Federal Border Service.

While reluctant to directly intervene militarily however, in 1997 Russia brought heavy political pressure to bear to end the Tajik civil war because of rising concerns in Moscow that Tajikistan could be undermined by the rise of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. When Tajikistan’s civil war ended in a ceasefire in Dec. 1997, 50,000 were dead in a nation of only 7.5 million, more than one-tenth of the population had fled the country and the nation’s economy was effectively dealt a blow from which it has yet to recover. More recently, Tajikistan underwent a number of domestic security incidents during 2010-12, including armed conflict between government forces and local strongmen in the Rasht Valley and between government forces and criminal groups in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. Such incidents have left Tajikistan scrambling for security partners, with Russia at the top of the list.

A recent example of the military solidarity were tactical war games between Tajik and Russian forces, which began on Oct. 6 and involved more than 1,000 servicemen from the 201st Motorized Rifle Division. But while the Russian military presence provides increased military security, the Tajik economy remains the poorest and most underdeveloped of the former Soviet states.

Twenty-three years after independence, the average Tajik’s life remains one of grinding poverty and diminished expectations. Tajikistan faces a daunting litany of problems – quite aside from the aforementioned poverty; the population’s misery index includes substantial drug trafficking, persistent Islamic militancy and corruption. Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index ranked Tajikistan 154th out of the 175 countries and territories assessed.

Tajikistan had an estimated per capita income of $2,300 in 2013. The country is landlocked and, unlike its neighbors, it does not possess hydrocarbon reserves. In 2012, almost half the population subsisted on less than $2 per day. About a million Tajiks have emigrated, mostly to Russia (roughly 90 percent of total emirgres) and Kazakhstan, and an increasing number of young workers leave the country.

According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Tajik émigré worker remittances now account for 49 percent of the country’s GDP, making Tajikistan one of the world’s most remittance-dependent countries. One modest ray of hope for the Tajik economy is that it became a member of the World Trade Organization in March 2013, but the country has yet to see any immediate benefits.

Strengthening the impression that Russia is not leaving Tajikistan anytime soon, on Oct. 3 Russia Central Military District press service spokesman Iaroslav Roshchupkin stated that Russia would build a new military training facility in southern Tajikistan to facilitate joint military exercises, remarking, “Russian soldiers will help their Tajik colleagues in setting up a new training ground, ‘Armageddon,’ in Khatlon province for joint training of military units of the two countries.”

Such a facility will prove useful as the regional strategic matrix is impacted by events in Afghanistan. Tajikistan remains a weak state that is potentially vulnerable to destabilizing influences that could come across the border from Afghanistan as the NATO-led international coalition there draws down its combat forces by Dec. 2014, as well as a possible revival of militant Islam in country in the ensuing regional security vacuum. In understanding the appeal of Islam among a people as downtrodden as the Tajiks (and young – the median age of Tajik males is 23 years), it is important to take into account the fact that while Communism provided economic and social stability, it largely failed significantly to improve their lives, while two decades of capitalism has enriched only a small portion of the country’s elite, leaving an estimated 35 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

As for drugs, Tajikistan’s porous 810 mile-long border with Afghanistan is essentially wide open, a porous frontier which separates one of the world’s most unstable countries from one of the poorest of which drug traffickers take full advantage.

On Oct. 5 2012 the Russian and Tajik defense ministers signed an agreement that extended Russia’s lease on the 201st Motorized Rifle Division military base until at least 2042, replacing the lease that was scheduled to expire at the end of 2013. The agreement contained two important caveats for Russia – there was no rent, and the roughly 7,000 military personnel serving at the base as well as their families were to be granted immunity from legal prosecution in the country. In return, Russia, which supplies the bulk of petrol used in the country, agreed to remove import duties on light oil products exported to Tajikistan. Russia as well as agreeing to provide better terms for Tajik migrant workers in Russia. Accordingly, while many in the West might see Russia’s ongoing military presence in Tajikistan as a Soviet imperial legacy, the reality is that it has up to now prevented a renewal of civil war, a fact for which not only Tajiks but its post-Soviet neighbors should all be grateful, lest not only Tajikistan but surrounding post-Soviet states slip into jihadi “Armageddon.” Dr. John C. K. Daly is a non-resident Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Central Asia Caucasus Institute in Washington DC.###

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