Russia and Tajikistan Wrangle Over Base Agreement

Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon visited Moscow last week to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and at the top of the agenda was the fate of the Russian military base in Tajikistan. The base, with about 7,000 soldiers, is Russia’s largest land forces base outside its borders, and it’s become the largest single issue of contention between the tiny, unstable country and its superpower patron.

The base is home to Russia’s 201st Motorized Rifle Division, which, in 1991 (when the Soviet Union collapsed) was based in Tajikistan due to its role in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. During Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s, although they were formally supposed to remain neutral, the Russian forces backed the side which eventually won, led by Rahmon. But Rahmon has never been comfortable with the base’s presence and the leverage that it gives Russia over Tajikistan’s affairs.

The current base agreement was signed in 1999 by Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin and Rahmon (though at the time he still retained the Russified -ov at the end of his name). During that round of negotiations, Rahmonov appeared to be especially interested in exerting a certain amount of political control over the base. According to Lena Jonson in her book “Tajikistan in the New Central Asia,” among other demands made by the Tajikistani side, “President Rakhmonov would get ‘the right to assume command of Russia’s 201st [motorized rifle division] and use it for the protection of national interests’ [and] the Tajik side would get the right to dispose of the movable property of the 201st MRD in the event of the Tajik leadership deciding that the division would withdraw from Tajikistan.” Russian officials, however, called those demands “completely unacceptable.” Ultimately, however, Russia was to accede to a key demand from the Tajikistani side: the removal of Russian border guards from the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.

That agreement for the base is scheduled to expire in 2014. As the two sides began to negotiate an extension, Tajikistan made it clear that – unlike under the current agreement – it expected to get paid for hosting the base. The amount it hoped for reportedly varied from between $100 million and $300 million per year, and Tajik hopes were buoyed by the fact that Kyrgyzstan last year managed to get Moscow to pay some back rent for the bases Russia operates there. But when the two presidents signed an agreement last October extending the base’s presence to 2042, there was still no rent except for what a Putin aide bragged was a “symbolic sum.”

But the agreement did include a number of other benefits for Tajikistan, dealing with many of the key elements of the bilateral relationship. Russia agreed to loosen rules on labor migrants, key for Tajikistan: more than a million Tajikistanis work in Russia, and the remittances they send back represent close to half of the country’s gross domestic product. That makes Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world. The base agreement also included a provision for duty-free deliveries of Russian fuel to Tajikistan and roughly $200 million in military aid. In an interesting contrast with the previous round of negotiations, however, Tajikistan appeared to not demand any control over the base; Rahmon may have realized that such wishes were futile.

Soon after the agreement was signed, however, Russia began to grumble that Tajikistan was dragging its feet on the ratification and the two sides got bogged down in the details of the deal. Tajikistan wanted to be able to reexport the duty-free fuel, making for a potentially lucrative side business, but Russia was opposed. And Tajikistan reportedly grew dissatisfied with the $200 million in aid, especially since Kyrgyzstan was getting a far larger package, over more than $1 billion.

In Moscow, however, Rahmon said that Tajikistan’s parliament would ratify the deal soon: “I’d like to say that we treat this issue [of the Russian military base] very seriously,” he said, “and we are firmly committed to fulfilling our obligations. Now that we have solved a range of issues concerning the base, and as our parliament is returning from holiday, we will solve this issue by the fall of 2013.” (Russia’s parliament ratified the deal in April.) Neither side gave much indication of how the contentious issues had been resolved. But Tajikistan’s defense minister reportedly stayed on in Moscow to work out the details of military cooperation with the Russian Ministry of Defense, and Russia’s defense minister gave some details about the period over which the military aid would be disbursed, suggesting that military cooperation was high on the agenda. In any case, by historical standards a ratification delay of just a year would be relatively short: although the current agreement was first signed in 1999, all of the details weren’t finally worked out until 2004.

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