On July 17 Tajikistan’s Ministry of Defense announced plans to allow Russian combat aircraft to be deployed in Dushanbe. The agreement involves the aviation support component of the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division based in Tajikistan and will result in Russian combat aircraft being quartered on the Ayni air base outside Dushanbe in 2008. “According to preliminary information, the Ayni air base will host four Su-25s, four Mi-24s, and four Mi-8s,” a source within the Russian Ministry of Defense said. Work is currently in progress to complete infrastructure needed for the aircraft and accommodations for air force personnel, which are expected to be complete in time for next year (Interfax, July 17).
The Russian Air Force is expected to send four Su-25 (Frogfoot) jets, as well as four Mi-24 and four Mi-8 helicopters. It is a move expected to strengthen the 201st MRD — and Tajikistan’s reliance on Russian military support during any future crisis; consistent with Tajikistan’s treaty obligations within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Moreover, although the numbers involved in the deployment are relatively small, this move reflects Moscow’s strategy to bolster its low-key military presence, as first seen in neighboring Kyrgyzstan at the Kant base.
The announcement coincided with vehement denials by Tajik officials that India plans to deploy air force elements at the same location. On July 17 the Times of India reported sources within India’s Defense Ministry as suggesting that it will send a squadron of Mi-17 helicopters and Kiran training aircraft to Ayni, with the long-term aim of transforming the deployment into an air base. Tahmina Khayrulloyeva, deputy head of the Tajik Defense Ministry’s department for international relations, denied that Tajikistan’s has reached any such agreement with India. “We do not have an agreement that would serve as a basis for cooperation between Tajikistan and India in this sphere. Therefore, no one can deploy its contingent on our country’s territory without having one,” commented Khayrulloyeva (RIA-Novosti, Avesta, July 17).
Within two days Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi called a press conference in Dushanbe to clarify the issue. Tajikistan has no such agreement with India and there are, in fact, no negotiations on a future Indian military contingent or base appearing within Tajikistan. “I can reassure you that no protocols or agreements on an Indian military presence in Tajikistan have ever been signed, and we are not negotiating the issue either,” the Tajik Foreign Minister affirmed. The confusion appears to have occurred owing to India’s involvement in rebuilding and constructing the base, which is in accordance with existing bilateral military-technical cooperation accords. Simultaneously, the Tajik Defense Ministry also refuted the rumor that India would use the Ayni airfield, 15 kilometers east of Dushanbe, as an airbase.
On July 16 bilateral relations between Russia and Tajikistan were discussed during a telephone conversation between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both are concerned with issues relating to a meeting of the presidents of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Community, and CSTO member states planned for October in Dushanbe. Rahmon and Putin later expressed confidence that the meeting would facilitate the further strengthening of cooperation and collaboration among the member states of these international and regional organizations; it is also expected to solidify security relations between Russia and Tajikistan. (Tajik TV, July 16).
Given Putin’s firm stance on foreign policy disagreements with the United States and his recent standoff with the United Kingdom over the Litvinenko affair, Dushanbe is reacting to an increasingly assertive Moscow in security matters. In other words, the negotiations between the two countries had long since put in place the necessary agreement to allow Russian combat aircraft to be deployed in Tajikistan, and, given Dushanbe’s warm relations with India, there was another rationale behind the official response to the rumored Indian military deployment. The number of officials and government departments that speedily distanced themselves from the rumor, rather than simply issuing a clarification, indicates that the real sensitivity in Dushanbe relates to not offending Moscow over any hint of a foreign military presence in Tajikistan.
Militarily, the justification for the deployment is far fetched and seems based more on politics and Moscow’s eagerness to head off any U.S. effort to deploy military components to Tajikistan. Of course, Russia benefits from ongoing reports about weak Tajik security forces, despite all the U.S. dollars spent on assisting the Tajik government to help its security forces.
Given the weak Tajik forces, Dushanbe may feel the need to search for alternative security arrangements. Idibek Sobirov, deputy military prosecutor of the Qurghonteppa garrison, recently confirmed that more than 46% of Khatlon region’s men due for call-up have health problems and are unfit for military service. He said that three years ago, his agency believed that 68% of the region’s men due for call-up were considered unfit for military service. These figures were revised following the military commission’s close supervision over the conscription commissions. Major social problems were identified as contributing factors, which suggest no immediate or short-term remedy, including the illiteracy of young people of conscription age and their lack of preparation for military service; only 2% of the men due for call-up have a higher education degree, restricting the quality of conscription and, in turn, Tajikistan’s security capabilities.
It is hardly surprising, with people not keen to serve, that crime rates are running high: “All in all, over the review period, of the 95 criminal cases being dealt with, 51 were sent to the military court for examination. Over this period, the collegium of judges examined 50 criminal cases brought against 53 servicemen,” Sobirov said.
Tajik servicemen commonly commit crimes such as going AWOL and abuse of power. In the first half of 2007, one serviceman’s death was registered in the Qurghonteppa garrison, whereas there were nine such cases in the same period of last year. Such reporting provides Moscow with suitable justification for closer involvement in Tajikistan (Avesta, July 17).