Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 108

On October 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated the now legal Russian military base in Tajikistan. One day earlier in Dushanbe, Putin and Tajikistan President Imomali Rakhmonov exchanged the instruments of ratification for the April 1999 agreement that conferred basing rights on the Russian Army troops — specifically, the 201st motorized-rifle division — in Tajikistan. Signed by Rakhmonov with Russia’s then-president Boris Yeltsin, the agreement did not enter into force for five-and-a half-years, owing to differences over the economic, political, and military operating conditions of the base. Thus, the Russian troops had been stationed in Tajikistan without a legal cover until now.

Those differences are now settled in a package of agreements on the composition and organizational structure of the Russian force and on its use of mobile and fixed property in Tajikistan. According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov at the signing and inauguration ceremonies, Russian troop strength has been set at 5,000. This is less than half of the 201st division’s troop strength before September 2001, but it is still the largest Russian troop deployment in a foreign country. The “base” in fact consists of a number of installations in and near Dushanbe, in the Kulob area to the south, the Aini airfield to the north, and the Nurek space surveillance center to the southeast of the capital. Under the agreements signed on October 16, Aini and Nurek are henceforth amalgamated with the Russian military base.

Russia will deploy five fighter planes and several helicopters at Aini after upgrading that Soviet-era airfield. The Nurek installation is being handed over in full ownership to Russia; in return, Moscow will write off $242 million of Tajikistan’s debt to Russia under an agreement between the two Finance Ministries. At all of these locations, Russia will use the land and immovable property gratis for a 49-year period. Tajikistan retains land ownership, expressed in a symbolic rental charge equal to 39 cents annually. As part of the deal, Russia will defray the costs of training Tajik officers in Russian military schools.

One battalion of the 201st division is assigned to the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization’s Rapid Deployment Forces. These also include one Tajik, one Kazakh, and one Kyrgyz battalion, all stationed permanently in the home countries and conducting joint exercises periodically. The next exercise is scheduled for the first half of 2005 in Tajikistan, modeled on the exercise held in August 2004 in Kyrgyzstan. While the 201st division’s rapid-deployment battalion is ranked as a high-readiness unit, the division no longer is. It has recently been used partly as backup for border troops, numerically halved, and manned partly by conscripts, while some of the contract servicemen are being rotated out of Tajikistan for economic reasons.

The division’s current mission is hard to define. Putin’s and Sergei Ivanov’s definitions (offered during the signing and inauguration ceremonies) seem, rather, rationalizations: “To combat drug trafficking and organized crime” is a mission for border guards, police, and intelligence services. “To repel any extremist incursions into the CIS space” sounds unconvincing, as U.S. and European troops are present throughout Afghanistan, the presidential election has been held successfully, Russia’s local Tajik-Afghan allies control northern Afghanistan, and Moscow itself acknowledges that Tajikistan is capable of protecting that border.

For another rationalization, Putin declared, “The Russian military base will guarantee stability for our investments.” Echoed Ivanov: “As Russia [will be] investing $2 billion in Tajikistan, it is important to protect this investment. This is why our Russian military base is located here.” This argument brings to mind a Dutch official’s remark recently (in this same context) that, by analogy, Germany has billions of dollars worth of investments in the Netherlands, but it was quick to learn that it does not need to deploy a division to protect its investments in that country.

On October 16, Russia and Tajikistan signed intergovernmental agreements on Cooperation on Border Protection and On Procedures for the Transfer of Border Units and their Property. Under these agreements, Russia’s border troops will hand over to Tajikistan’s border troops the mission to protect the Tajik-Afghan border. The transfer will proceed sector-by-sector from east to west on the full length of that border in 2005-2006.

Russia will set up an Operational Group to assist Tajik border troops with training and intelligence gathering. Judging by past Russian practice in other post-Soviet countries (e.g., in Kyrgyzstan), operational groups are in essence training and assistance missions to national border troops. According to Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Sergei Prikhodko, the operational group will not be responsible for border protection; this will be the sole responsibility of Tajik border troops. Prikhodko stated, “Tajikistan is capable of protecting the border if there are no surprising changes of the situation in Afghanistan.” The planned withdrawal of Russian border troops from the Tajik-Afghan perimeter leaves Armenia as the only post-Soviet country where Russian border troops are in charge of the border.

(Interfax, RIA, Itar-Tass, Russian Television Channel One, Asia-Plus, Avesta, October 16, 17)