Tajikistan’s government, committed to the improvement and gradual reform of the armed forces and security services, sent a worrying signal this week by rescinding its experiment with contract servicemen within its army. This may be interpreted in some quarters as a gambit on the part of President Emomali Rahmonov, who has been appealing for greater levels of international security assistance in his failing attempts to reform his post-Soviet legacy forces. But placed alongside the renewed emphasis on Russian military input and advice, as well as domestic concerns about U.S. policy on introducing more democracy in the region, Dushanbe has drawn a line under Western-inspired efforts to professionalize its military structures.
Sherali Khayrulloyev, Tajikistan’s defense minister, announced on February 23 that Tajikistan would not carry out any planned transition to contract service. The experiment has essentially failed, in his view, and the contract service arrangements in the Tajik army are now abolished. “Military service is regulated by the law ‘On general military conscription and military service.’ In line with the law, military service is obligatory for servicemen, sergeants, and reserve officers under 30 years of age who have never served in the army before and is voluntary for officers and warrant officers with long service experience,” Khayrulloyev said. He remains confident about military reform, but a different kind and course of military reform than what has been expected in the West (Avesta, February 23).
President Rakhmonov, addressing the country during Army Day on February 23, made much of the supposed progress in efforts to reform the national military. “Now it is capable of fully ensuring the security of the state and nation, and protecting our motherland’s borders. Because both practice and military exercises have repeatedly proved the might and readiness of the armed forces in defense, prevention of and the fight against any dangers and threats,” he asserted. Yet, by his own admission, the military has suffered greatly from internal corruption, recording over 2,000 crimes committed by Ministry of Defense personnel in the past five years, and highlighting internal corruption within the armed forces and security services.
Moreover, Rakhmonov confirmed the existence of illegal methods of recruitment, which suggest the ailing nature of the manning system. “They are mostly intimidated by cases of illegal mobilization and press-ganging of young people into the military service,” he added. Despite his rather far-fetched claims to increasing the budget allocated to the Ministry of Defense by 22% year-on-year since 2000, the picture Rakhmonov presented in his televised speech was unusually realistic. The most surprising element of his speech was the confirmation of Russian high-level input into the development of the armed forces, regardless of Dushanbe’s official efforts to diversify security assistance and appeal to NATO for more help. According to presidential statistics, more than 570 Tajik officers have graduated from Russian military schools during the past five years, and 389 cadets from Tajikistan are currently studying at military establishments in Russia, China, and India (Tajik TV First Channel, February 23).
The Russian media gave Rahmonov’s speech widespread, approving coverage. Here the emphasis was placed on the role of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division (MRD), which now has the status of a military base, and the help the facility provides to the Tajik army. Russian TV presented bilateral and multilateral military exercises through the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as indicators that Dushanbe remains firmly within the Russian sphere of influence (Itar-Tass, February 23). Simultaneously, Russian TV presented positively the input of the 201st MRD as a stabilizing factor in both Tajikistan and Central Asia. Lieutenant-Colonel Yuri Aksyunov, commander of the 149th Guard Regiment, typified the reporting, “You can’t be bad here, you must be the best. Living conditions here are not always comfortable, but we shall overcome it. Service in the 149th regiment is special, honorary, and very important” (Center TV, February 23).
Tajikistan’s problems with military reform, based largely on monetary considerations, come at a politically significant juncture. Amid growing pressure to introduce political reform, the regime is anxious about the pro-democracy stance taken by the Bush administration, particularly given Washington’s recent problems with Tashkent. Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, believes that the recent statement by U.S. President George W. Bush promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union does not signal interference in the internal political process of Tajikistan. “Revolutions are inevitable when a critical mass reaches its crisis point, corruption is developing, social reform is ineffective, human rights and freedoms are restricted,” he said. Muhiddin Kabiri, deputy chairman of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan and a deputy from the Assembly of Representatives (the lower chamber of parliament) of Tajikistan, believes that Bush is damaging America and democracy as a whole through his statements on the promotion of democracy and his emphasis on revolutionary regimes in former Soviet republics. “It is not excluded that the atmosphere will be heated during elections in Belarus and Tajikistan, but it will not lead to a revolution,” he said (Avesta, February 25).
The message from the Tajik regime is relatively simple: a professional army is desirable but unaffordable. More Western money poured into the military reform process would be welcome, but only on the understanding that Russia has the biggest say and influence in that reform process. Any efforts to promote democratic reform in Dushanbe will force the regime closer to Russia. That move already appears underway.