by Kambiz Arman 10/28/04
Russia has strengthened its strategic foothold in Central Asia with an unprecedented plan for military and economic cooperation with Tajikistan. A far-reaching strategic agreement allows Moscow to establish a permanent military base in Tajikistan and gives Russian companies opportunities to gain controlling interests in key Tajik economic sectors.
The agreement, signed on October 17 during an official state visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Dushanbe, completes a stunning reversal in bilateral relations, which just a few years ago were infused with acrimony. In the months following the September 11 terrorist tragedy Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov explored closer ties with the United States, while distancing Dushanbe from Russia. . Of late, Russia has worked diligently to restore its geopolitical position in Tajikistan. Helping to force a reevaluation of Dushanbe’s diplomatic calculus was Tajikistan’s approximately $300-million debt to Russia.
The centerpiece of the Tajik-Russian deal is a base for 5,000 troops for Russia’s 201st Motorized Rifle Division. Establishing a permanent outpost in Tajikistan has long been a goal for the Kremlin. Analysts believe that the presence of US forces in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, along with NATO’s intensifying interest in the region, deepened the Kremlin’s resolve to secure a Tajik base.
Contrary to earlier Tajik objections, Russian commanders will be based in the capital, Dushanbe, with troops deployed in the southern cities of Kulab and Kurgan-Tyube. At the October 17 ceremony to open the base, Putin declared that "the base will boost peace and stability in Central Asia and throughout the former Soviet republics," the news agency RIA-Novosti reported. The Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda added a more aggressive interpretation: the base, the paper wrote, will act as "a firm fist to protest Russian interests abroad."
A 49-year lease on an anti-missile warning system at Nurek topped off the base agreement. Under this deal, Russia will gain access to the Soviet-era military space observation center at Nurek and also an Okno anti-missile system. The handover was a clear quid pro quo: in exchange for granting Russia control of Nurek, Tajikistan will see $240 million of the $300 million in debt it owes to Moscow written off.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov commented that the Nurek facilities – leased at a nominal fee – will provide "a feeling of confidence as a minimum." Rahmonov, meanwhile, described the debt deal as "lifting a weight" from Tajikistan.
So far, Western governments have reacted calmly to the latest developments. On October 20, the day Putin left Dushanbe, NATO Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer flew to Tajikistan to sign a transit agreement for NATO flights into Afghanistan. The alliance uses air bases in Tajikistan, as well as US bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, to provide aerial support for its operations to the south. While stressing the desirability of "stronger" ties with the Central Asian state, de Hoop Scheffer told reporters that the defense collective did not see the Russian base agreement as cause for alarm. "There are good ties between NATO and Russia," he said. "Russia is not our rival."
That tone was an echo of earlier comments by US Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard E. Hoagland, who said a Russian base would not dampen US relations with Tajikistan. "Tajikistan, as any other independent nation, has a right to decide what is in its national interests independently," Hoagland said, according to Itar-Tass.
For now, the need for economic assistance appears to be driving Tajikistan’s diplomatic decisions. Overall, Russian private and state-owned companies are expected to invest up to $2 billion over the next five years into the Tajik economy, Putin said during his October 17-20 visit. In a country with an estimated GDP of just under $7 billion for 2003, that could grant Russian firms a sizeable interest in the local economy.
In addition to the debt relief provided for in the Nurek agreement, Tajikistan also stands to receive a $250 million investment in the Sangtuda hydroelectric station from Russian energy giant Unified Energy System (UES). Sangtuda has already secured up to $200 million in investment from neighbor Iran. Analysts have forecast that the UES involvement in Sangtuda, the country’s second largest hydropower station, will pit Russia against Iran. Yet Rahmonov already has made clear where Tajikistan believes its interests lie. "The activity of Russian companies has stepped up in Tajikistan, although all possibilities have not [been] used yet," Itar-Tass quoted Rahmonov as saying on October 16. "Foreign investors show more interest in our projects, including in the field of hydropower engineering. But we prefer our old friends and partners."
In return for giving Russia a stake in the 670-megawatt station, Tajikistan will see an additional $50 million of its debt to Russia cleared, Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin told reporters on October 16. "As a result, we will receive an appropriate block of shares after the construction of the plant is finished," Kudrin said. The construction project, with an estimated cost of between $320 million and $550 million, is scheduled for completion by the end of 2008.
Construction, begun in 1987, stalled with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. If the station is not completed or if Russia does not receive an unspecified number of shares in Sangtuda, the $50 million debt will be reinstated, Kudrin said.
A similar assistance strategy appears to hold for another Tajik energy complex, the Rugun hydroelectric dam, located 110 kilometers to the southeast of Dushanbe. RusAl, one of the world’s three biggest aluminum companies, will provide $560 million to get the project, stalled since the 1980s, off the ground, Itar-Tass reported. In addition to its Rugun investment, RusAl will also pony up $600 million over the next five years for construction of an aluminum smelter in southern Tajikistan.
All told, the company plans to invest more than $10 billion in the Tajik economy within the next decade.
A key instrument in Russia’s efforts to restore its influence across the broader region may be the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), which was established in 2002 as a regional free-trade vehicle among member states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. So far, frequent bickering among member states has frustrated attempts to promote free trade in Central Asia. At the organization’s October 18 summit in Dushanbe, Russia joined the organization, pledging to help address regional issues including hydropower, trade and the struggle to contain Islamic radicalism. With Russia’s inclusion, some analysts predict that the organization could gain fresh momentum – an analysis reflected in Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s words of welcome. "Russia will be a factor for stability in the region. We have always acknowledged and continue to acknowledge Russia’s historical and strategic interests in the region," the Uzbek leader said.
Editor’s Note: Kambiz Arman is the pseudonym for a Tajik journalist.