Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official visit to Tajikistan, originally due earlier this year, rescheduled for the first half of September and then for October 4-5, is now expected in the second half of October (Avesta, October 1). Differences over both substance and details on four main issues have held up the visit. Those issues are: arrangements for protecting the Tajik-Afghan border, use of the Nurek radar facility, the status of Russian army troops in Tajikistan, and the legal status of Tajik migrants in Russia.
Tajikistan insists that Russia pay rent and associated costs for using the “Okno” space-surveillance center at Nurek (southeast of Dushanbe). The center’s construction has recently been completed after a decade-long standstill. The Russian side complains that Tajikistan does not recognize the validity of a 1994 bilateral agreement whereby the installation was to have been handed over to Russia for use gratis. A new agreement now being drafted envisages that Tajikistan would be compensated through deep cuts in its debt arrears to Russia. In Moscow, the Finance Ministry is raising objections. But the Russian military deems the Nurek radar irreplaceable and proposes to accommodate Tajikistan on financial issues. According to Lieut.-General Vladimir Popovkin, Commander of Russia’s Space Forces, “We simply have no other place to go. Russia’s territory does not have such high mountains and such a clean atmosphere” (Agentstvo voyennykh novostey, October 4).
From September 29 to October 4 the deputy commander of Russia’s border troops, Lieut.-General Alexander Manilov, led a delegation to Dushanbe for negotiations over the scope and pace of transferring the responsibility for guarding the Tajik-Afghan border from Russian to Tajik troops. In April of this year, negotiators had seemed on the verge of agreeing on a two-year transfer process; but in June Putin prevailed on Tajikistan’s President Imomali Rahmonov to hold up the transfer, pending a review of its terms. Manilov’s visit to Dushanbe seems to have put the process on track again.
The sides have drafted an agreement on the “mechanism and details of the handover of border sections from the Russian to the Tajik [troops].” Under the document, Russia’s border troops will retain an operational group (liaison mission) in Tajikistan, train Tajik border troop officers, and provide Tajik border troops with “modern technical equipment meeting international standards” (a questionable proposition, as Russia itself needs such equipment). The draft is being submitted for the presidents’ approval. If they sign it during Putin’s expected visit, the handover would proceed section by section from east to west along the Tajik-Afghan border. The Ishkoshim, Khorug, and Kala-i Khum border detachments would in that case be handed over by the end of 2004. According to the Tajik communique, the Dushanbe talks were held “in an atmosphere of mutual understanding,” and Manilov “at his request” was received by the Tajik border troops’ commander afterward. Such formulations are usually employed to hint at difficulties in negotiations (Asia-Plus, October 1; Dushanbe Radio, October 4).
Since 199 Dushanbe has agreed in principle to confer basing rights on Russia’s 201st motorized-rifle division, mainly stationed in the Dushanbe area and in southwestern Tajikistan. Touted a few years ago as one of Russia’s high-readiness units, reinforced with armor, aviation, and other elements that augmented its total personnel to 11,000 (well above division size) and manned entirely by contract soldiers, the 201st division looks far weaker today. Its manpower was reported at 8,000 (standard division size) last year, and is currently reported at 5,000. Moreover, the division has switched from all-contract to mixed-manning enrollment, due to low military pay that necessitates using conscripts. The troop rotation currently underway is bringing more than 1,000 conscripts from Russia into this division. (Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, October 4).
This presence of this force in Tajikistan has lacked legal status even by Russian legal standards since its “CIS peacekeeping mission” was officially terminated in 1999. A status-of-forces agreement, signed in that year by Rahmonov with Russia’s then-president Boris Yeltsin, has not been ratified and is being renegotiated. Tajikistan seeks a significant say regarding base operations, movements of Russian troops, and their use in various contingencies. It also wants satisfaction on financial compensation and property issues arising from the Russian military’s use of Tajikistan’s land and infrastructure.
For its part, Moscow pressures Tajikistan on this issue by withholding agreement on the legal status of Tajik labor migrants in Russia, whose remittances are critical to Tajikistan’s economy. Tajikistan wants a long-term agreement that would ensure visa-free travel to Russia for Tajik workers, their legal rights and access to social guarantees in Russia, and at least a measure of protection from widespread abuse and depredation by Russian police. This issue is a chronic irritant in Tajikistan-Russia relations at all levels. A Russian-Tajik working group failed in September to work out an agreement on this issue in time for Putin’s then-expected visit (Asia-Plus, October 5).