Tajikistan: Dushanbe and Moscow Explore Long-Term Strategic Ties




September 6, 2011



The annual Commonwealth of Independent States summit -- held this year in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe – will probably be remembered most for what happened on the sidelines.


The summit itself was a snoozefest. Only seven presidents of the 10 CIS member states attended the Dushanbe gathering, which began September 3. The meeting concluded with only vague promises to expand cooperation.


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev generated the most excitement on September 3 with an announcement that Moscow is ready to invest in energy projects in Central Asia, including a plan to build power transmission lines from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Known as CASA-1,000, the 1,000-megawatt project could create a lucrative electricity export market for two of Central Asia’s most beleaguered states.


For CASA-1,000 to take shape, however, Tajikistan needs to complete the long-stalled Rogun Dam. The Rogun project has been a source of friction between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which fears the dam would alter existing water flows and thus hurt the Uzbek cotton industry. Moscow had pledged to help Dushanbe build Rogun, but Russian officials abruptly withdrew their support for the project in 2007. Some experts believed Uzbek lobbying prompted Russia’s about-face.


Tajik authorities remain eager to build Rogun. Moscow at the same time is open to getting involved in the project again. But for that to happen, Russian leaders need to feel assured that their interests in Tajikistan will be protected, according to political observers.


“As for Russia's participation in Rogun, Russian authorities need to make sure that Tajikistan is fully loyal in terms of military and border cooperation and security issues. Once Tajikistan proves that Russia is a real strategic partner, it can rely upon Russia's readiness to make big investments in Tajik energy projects,” said a source at the Russian State Duma.


Medvedev arrived in Tajikistan a day before the CIS summit’s opening to hold talks with his host, Tajik President Imomali Rahmon. Details of the bilateral talks were not publically disclosed, but the two leaders were believed to have focused on security issues, namely conditions along the Tajik-Afghan border and the future status of Russia’s 201st Motorized Rifle Division, which is stationed in the country. Russian border guards patrolled the porous 1,300-kilometer frontier until Rahmon asked them to leave in 2005. Since then, a small number of Russian advisers have worked with Tajik border units.


Over the past year, Russian officials have increased pressure on Dushanbe to allow Russian border guards to return to the Tajik-Afghan frontier. Many in Moscow complain that Tajik security forces are unable to stem the tide of drugs being trafficked from Afghanistan to Russia and beyond.


In Dushanbe, Rahmon announced that he and Medvedev signed a new border agreement, but offered no details. The two sides are also close to finalizing a pact that would keep the 201st division for an additional 49 years, Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti reported on September 3. The current basing agreement expires in 2014 and an agreement covering the presence of Russian border advisers was set to expire this year. The two sides were additionally rumored to have discussed basing Russian troops at the recently refurbished Ayni airbase.


A source in the Russian Embassy in Dushanbe told EurasiaNet.org that Moscow is satisfied with the Dushanbe discussions, but warned Tajik officials against any last minute “surprise bargaining.”


It is unclear what Tajikistan will receive in exchange for the basing rights, although Tajik and Russian reports suggest the deal could include Russian weapons and training. A September 1 commentary published by the Asia-Plus news agency expressed doubt that Moscow would pay for basing rights: “The Russian leadership believes that the 201st Russian military base ensures not only Russia's security, but that of Tajikistan as well. ‘Why should we pay, if we are doing the job for everyone?’ they ask.”


"Russia does not want to pay not because it is greedy, but because it does not want to create a precedent. A concession to Tajikistan might trigger a chain reaction everywhere Russia has military facilities -- in Armenia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan. A concession to Tajikistan would be taken by everyone as giving up Russia's interests,” Andrei Grozin, the head of the Central Asia Department at the Institute of CIS Countries in Moscow, told Asia-Plus on September 1.


On the eve of the Dushanbe meetings, Tajik newspapers voiced great expectations concerning Medvedev’s visit. But judging by the results, analysts say, little will change.


“The border issues definitely were discussed, but apparently behind closed doors. Most probably everything will remain unchanged in the area of border protection. That is, a limited number of Russian consultants will stay on the border and nobody expects a mass return of Russian soldiers,” Dushanbe-based analyst Parviz Mullojanov told EurasiaNet.org.


An analyst at the Russian State Duma said the border was not discussed publicly because of upcoming presidential elections in Russia – scheduled for March 2012 – and uncertainty over which of the ruling tandem in the Kremlin will take control of foreign policy: Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. “The new Russian president should discuss it later with Rahmon once the elections are over and Russia has defined new foreign policies. Besides that, the issue of the Russian border guards' return was not raised in order not to create negative emotions during the summit,” the Duma analyst said.