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    Central Asia
     Jul 11, 2012

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Russia loses hold on Tajikistan pivot
By M K Bhadrakumar

The simmering rivalries amongst Russia, China and the United States have begun bubbling up in Tajikistan against the backdrop of the uncertainties of the post-2014 period for regional security and stability. After months or years of secretive negotiations, Russian exasperation over Tajikistan's foot-dragging on the renewal of the lease agreement for its military base is surfacing.

However, the Russian-Tajik entanglement is more than a family quarrel, as it underscores the complex geopolitics of the post-2014 period in Central Asia when Western troops will have withdrawn from Afghanistan but the United States would still hope to keep permanent military bases in the region.

While the US intentions to expand its strategic footprints into


Central Asia have not been a great secret to Moscow, a new factor is that China, too, is contributing unwittingly to the erosion of Russian influence in the region.

Leaving to the wolves
Russia has deployed more than 6,000 soldiers from its 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan, spread among three garrisons in Dushanbe, Kurgan-Tube and Kulyab.

The current tussle is over the renewal of the Russian basing rights in Tajikistan, which expire in 2014. The Tajik base is a crucial template of the Russian security system in the Central Asian region and it provides the underpinning for an effective future Russian role in Afghanistan. Dushanbe demands that the base can no longer be given gratis - Russia will have to pay rent - and, secondly, that the lease be renewed only be for another 10- year period.

Unsurprisingly, Moscow is indignant that Dushanbe is dictating terms at all, when the Tajik regime is vulnerable to the fallout from Afghanistan and cannot do without the Russian troops' protection. In the Russian eye, Dushanbe's perceived intransigence appears doubly illogical since the Tajik economy is highly vulnerable. The remittances by the 1.5 million Tajik migrant workers in Russia account for anywhere up to half of Tajikistan's GDP.

Russia is also upset that the Tajik government is behaving in a shifty manner, after having agreed at a meeting between the then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, in Moscow last September to work out a 49-year lease agreement by early this year.

At any rate, the Russian narrative is that all this is attributable to the bazaar culture in Dushanbe. "Apparently, someone in this impoverished and extremely corrupt country is hell-bent on making a quick buck, and it could come either from Moscow or Washington, depending on who pays more for the right to have a military base in Tajikistan," Alexander Khramchikhin, director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, wrote in a commentary featured by the Russian news agency Novosti.

These are harsh words, and the Central Asian leaderships are highly sensitive to personal criticism. Khramchikhin went on to ridicule the Tajik leadership's notions regarding the "unlimited power of the US military", since the US is on retreat inexorably in Afghanistan and Central Asia. He warned that the Taliban "will almost certainly return to power" in Afghanistan with the support of the Pakistani army - "perhaps with the direct involvement" of the Pakistani army - once US and NATO troops withdraw. He argued:
So, hopes for American protection make no sense whatsoever. In general, it is absurd to presume that the Americans will ever go as far as spilling the blood of their soldiers to help out [Uzbekistan President Islam] Karimov or Rakhmon. It is therefore clear that if Russian troops withdraw from Tajikistan, it will actually create a problem for Tajikistan, not Russia.
Evidently, Moscow finds it unacceptable that the US is secretly negotiating deals with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for basing facilities. Meanwhile, reports are appearing that Dushanbe might offer the Ayni airbase to the US. On Friday, a ranking member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dan Burton, while on a visit to Dushanbe, said after a meeting with Rahmon that Washington is considering Tajikistan as a base in the post-2014 period since it has the longest border with Afghanistan. Burton promised that the US would increase its military aid to Tajikistan in 2014. He said Tajikistan "is a key to regional processes" and plays an important role in ensuring regional security.

Things seemed to have come to a flashpoint when at a meeting of the Council of the CIS Defense Ministers in Kaliningrad last Wednesday, Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloyev maintained with a straight face that fresh negotiations on the Russian base are needed. He pleaded he hadn't yet seen the Russian draft for the lease agreement (which was handed over quite some time back), and that Tajikistan was preparing its own draft for detailed negotiations with Moscow.

The chief of the Russian General Staff, General Nikolai Makarov, has said Moscow won't allocate any more funds for the development of the base in Tajikistan unless a new agreement is negotiated.

Moscow has indulged in some brinkmanship by stopping just short of holding out a threat to pull out its troops from Tajikistan and leave that country to the wolves. But Moscow is also unsure about Tajik intentions - whether Dushanbe is preparing the ground to get rid of the Russian military presence.

The Russian predicament is that it cannot question Tajikistan's prerogative as a sovereign country to decide what is in its interests. Second, Moscow cannot prescribe to Tajikistan not to have dealings with the US, since Russia itself recently agreed to provide the Ullyanovsk air base on the Volga as a transit hub for the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Third, Moscow cannot insist Tajikistan should continue to provide rent-free base when Kyrgyzstan insists on rent for the US' base in Manas.

Waking up to a dragon dance
The Russian officials have tried to frighten the Tajik side with the specter of an apocalypse following a Taliban upsurge in Afghanistan, underscoring that only Russia could act as Tajikistan's savior. But the Tajiks are unlikely to be impressed. They know Russia is loathe to vacate the base, as it would then be playing itself out of the Afghan chessboard. Besides, in the Tajik estimation, there could be other providers of security if and when the crunch time comes.

China is today as much a stakeholder in the security and stability of Central Asia as Russia could be. Beijing has big plans with regard to Afghanistan's natural resources, and Tajikistan is the gateway for China's transportation route from Afghanistan to Xinjiang.

China is building railway links via Tajikistan to connect Afghanistan with Xinjiang. Discussions have just begun between Beijing and Kabul to construct a transit pipeline through northern Afghanistan, which could be connected to the massive Central Asia pipeline that China built from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang.

The Afghan government awarded the first Amu Darya Basin tender last year to China's CNPC. The Chinese company is now performing field assessments and assessment of existing wells, and tendering for services. It has a commitment to produce at least 150,000 barrels of oil in 2012.

China is also expected to participate in the tender for granting oil concessions on the Afghan-Tajik border region, which Kabul is finalizing at the moment. Bejing is eager to boost incomes in Xinjiang and developing Afghanistan's resources and importing them through the communication links via Tajikistan will help accelerate the economic development of China's western region.

Continued 1 2 

Tajikistan attracts more Chinese funds
(Jun 19, '12)

Smaller 'stans fret at Russia's dominance
(Feb 2, '12)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jul 9, 2012)


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