Russia’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Trubnikov announced on May 12 that Russian border troops are being withdrawn from Tajikistan. Trubnikov’s statement is the first high-level confirmation by Moscow of this move. Asked whether it was a result of “American pressure,” Trubnikov replied: “No. This is the wish of the Tajiks themselves.” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 12).
Officials in Dushanbe recently have been making no secret of that wish. On April 30 in his annual address to parliament, President Imomali Rahmonov thanked Russia’s border troops for their service to Tajkistan, and announced that Tajik border guards would begin replacing Russian troops, specifically on the border with Afghanistan.
Already this month, Tajik border troops are scheduled to take over from Russian troops in the Badakhshan sector of the Tajik-Afghan border. According to Lieutenant-General Abdurahmon Azimov, commander in chief of Tajikistan’s border troops, Tajik troops plan to take charge of all the sectors on that border, which is about 1,400km long, within the next twelve months. The commander of Russian border troops, Major-General Aleksandr Baranov, confirmed that the schedule of handing over the border sectors to Tajik troops has been worked out. (Institute for War and Peace Reporting [London], “Russia to Cede Control of Historic Border,” Report on Central Asia, May 15).
Russia’s border troops in Tajikistan number almost 14,000. While the great majority of officers — estimated at 2,200 — and NCOs are Russian, conscripts and contract servicemen are for the most part Tajiks in Russian uniform who serve under the Russian flag.
A bilateral agreement signed in 1993 authorized Russia to protect Tajikistan’s borders. The pact envisaged the possibility of handing over that mission to Tajik troops at the end of a 10-year period, at which point either side could opt out of the agreement with six-months advance notice. Failing that, validity of the agreement is extended automatically. Tajikistan did not serve advance notice last year. Nevertheless, Tajikistan is now taking practical steps to bring it to a close.
Tajikistan and Russia were to share costs of the border-protection operation on a 50-50 basis, to be calculated annually. This agreement became the source of constant wrangling, with each side arguing that the other was main beneficiary of the arrangement and that it should therefore defray more than half of the costs.
Russian doctrine distinguishes between border protection and border defense. Border protection is performed by border troops; border protection is the responsibility of combined border and army troops. In Tajikistan, troops of the Russian Army’s 201st division were often deployed near the Tajik-Afghan border in difficult sectors, as backup for border troops. This arrangement continues to be used when necessary to fend off Afghan armed groups that protect drug-trafficking gangs operating across the border.
Russian troops proved unable to cope with the flow of drugs from Afghanistan into Tajikistan, bound for Russia and Europe. Stemming that flow has been the main official rationale for deployment of Russian troops on that border — an example of Russia’s inclination to apply military instruments to non-military problems. Instead of becoming a barrier, that border became a conduit for drug traffic, with the result that Tajikistan and Russia became the main transit routes for Afghan drugs reaching Europe. Poor equipment as well as corruption, especially within the Russian higher ranks contributed to that situation.
Among the five Central Asian countries, Tajikistan is the last to take control of its own borders. It began with the 500km border with China and a 73km stretch on the border with Afghanistan.
Protection of the Tajik-Afghan border will pose daunting problems for Tajik border troops. The State Border Protection Committee intends to: beef up the number of its troops by transferring thousands of personnel from the Defense and Internal Affairs Ministries and the Presidential Guard into border troops; increase funding for contract servicemen’s salaries and for improving service conditions; and rely on Western assistance for personnel training and procurement of vehicles and modern technical equipment.
In his above-referenced remarks, Trubnikov conceded that Russia has become the main transit route for Afghan drugs (often trafficked by Tajiks) and predicted that the traffic would further increase. This, however, need not happen if Tajikistan’s Western partners — especially the Europeans in their own interest — assist Tajikistan’s fledgling border troops and suppress drug-trading networks in northern Afghanistan, fiefdom of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance and primary source of the drugs traded across the Tajik border. (see also EDM, May 4).