In his annual address to the national parliament on April 30, Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov said that close strategic relations bind Russia and Tajikistan together. “Tajikistan has not changed its attitude towards its strategic ally over the ten years of our partnership. The Tajik nation remembers Russia’s role in strengthening national reconciliation and the territorial integrity of our country. We, in conjunction with Russia, are resolving the issues of terrorism, extremism and illegal drug trafficking. We have a common purpose in all these areas,” Rahmonov told the parliament. But Rahmonov added that “he is not satisfied with the level of economic cooperation” over the ten years.
Turning to the presence of Russian border troops in Tajikistan, the president recalled that a ten-year agreement covering their presence had been signed in 1993. Undoubtedly, the Tajik nation is grateful to the Russian border guards who have been deployed on the Tajik-Afghan border over this period, he said. But Rahmonov also highlighted the fact that one of the provisions of the agreement stipulates that Russia will gradually transfer certain sectors of the Tajik-Afghan border to Tajikistan’s own border troops as they are formed. He said that a 500 km section of the Chinese border and a 70 km section of the Tajik-Afghan border had been handed over to the Tajik border troops on Russia’s initiative last year. The process of gradually transferring the Tajik-Afghan border to the Tajik border guards will be conducted in all Tajik regions within a certain period of time (Itar-Tass, April 30).
Rahmonov’s statement regarding the gradual transfer of responsibilities for the defense of the Tajik-Afghan border to his country’s own border defense troops is a sensation. First of all, it is noteworthy that the statement has come from the most important political figure in the country. Russian border guards have been defending the Tajik-Afghan border for some ten years in accordance with an agreement signed by Moscow and Dushanbe on May 25, 1993. In September of 2003 the deputy chairman of the National Committee on State Border Defense, Nuralisho Nazarov, made the first statement about the need to transfer border defense duties to the Tajik border guards.
In essence, Nazarov’s statement directly contradicted earlier declarations by Russian President Vladimir Putin and by Rahmonov himself, both of whom repeatedly emphasized that the issue of any near term withdrawal of Russian border guards from Tajikistan was out of the question. And when prominent political figures in Tajikistan failed to react to Nazarov’s statement, Moscow decided to pretend that the words of the Tajik border guard official amounted to nothing more than the private opinion of a rank and file bureaucrat. No official commentaries from the Russian political leadership followed regarding this statement. Indeed, the only response came from Maksim Peshkov, the extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of Russia in Tajikistan. In an interview given to the newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta, Peshkov stated that the Russian side was at the time studying Nazarov’s “personal opinion.” But he added that it was already clear that “the majority of facts, which Nazarov cited in his interview, did not correspond with reality”(Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 25, 2003).
According to Article 29 of the Russian-Tajik agreement on border defense, if one side wants to abandon the agreement it must notify the other side six months in advance. If there is no advance notification, then the agreement is automatically extended for an additional five years. The fact that official Dushanbe declined, after Nazarov’s statement, to express any desire to defend the border permitted the Kremlin to hope that Russian border guards would continue to protect the Tajik-Afghan border into the future. But Rahmonov’s most recent statement suggests, in essence, that such hopes are in vain.
It is worth recalling that, of all of the Central Asian republics, only Tajikistan allowed Russia to defend its borders. The Kremlin did not hide the fact that it considered control over the Tajik-Afghan border one of its top policy priorities in Central Asia. In 1993 then Russian President Boris Yeltsin stated, “Everyone should understand that in reality this border is Russian and not Tajik.” Russian control over the Tajik-Afghan border, combined with the presence of the 201st Russian Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan (there are approximately 25,000 Russian soldiers in the republic), justifiably allowed the Kremlin to view Tajikistan as its bridgehead in Central Asia. Moreover, during the Tajik Civil War, the Kremlin openly supported the present leadership of the country in exchange for its pro-Russian policies.
It is also worth recalling that, in conversations with Jamestown that took place during the Civil War, the then chairman of the Movement of Islamic Revival of Tajikistan, Akbar Turajonzoda, stated that opposition militants in the country were in reality fighting against Russian troops and not the Tajik pro-government forces. If Dushanbe should actually decide to opt for the withdrawal of the Russian border guards from Tajikistan, the decision could be considered a serious defeat for the policy pursued by Russia in Tajikistan over the past decade.