Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Nathan Hamm on 10/18/2004

Or, as reports, Tajikistan was caught “between the Russian frying pan and American fire.”

On a visit to the United States in January 2002, president of Tajikistan hinted that he would do everything to have Russian border guards removed from the Tajik-Afghani border. Rakhmonov expected more tolerance to his domestic policy on Washington’s part in return. All the same, American criticism of official Dushanbe only increased in the wake of the Sochi meeting between Putin and Rakhmonov when the presidents decided not to make haste in replacement of Russian border guards with their Tajik counterparts. The criticism was sparked by encroachments on the freedom of the Tajik media on the eve of the parliamentary election slated for next February and by the new law “On elections”.

It was also difficult for Rakhmonov to smooth out the relations with Russian leaders because he, an open and straightforward man as he is, all but admitted his suspicions with regard to Moscow’s involvement in attempts on his life.

I’m a tad skeptical of the narrative here, and what follows is a little difficult to understand. Nevertheless, through all the twists and turns, Tajikistan has finally seen fit to make the presence of the 201st Motorized Infantry Division permanent.

If you’re a long-time reader, you may have noticed me making remarks to the effect that Russian military involvement in one’s country seems to have more drawbacks than benefits. Much of this has to do with the storied history of the 201st in Tajikistan.

Although nominally neutral in the civil war that broke out in Tajikistan in the fall of 1992, the 201st Division, together with substantial forces from neighboring Uzbekistan, played a significant role in the recapture of the capital city, Dushanbe, by former communist forces. The resulting civil war claimed between 20-50,000 lives.

As the civil war continued in more remote regions of Tajikistan during the next three years, the 201st Division remained the dominant military force, joining with Russian border troops and a multinational group of “peace-keeping” troops (dominated by Russian and Uzbekistani forces and including troops from Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan) to patrol the porous border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

In the absence of a strong policy guidance from Moscow, the 201st Division turned into an independent political force. Although the local Russian military in Tajikistan was ordered to stay neutral in the evolving conflict; informally it took side and transferred weapons to the Popular Front. The pro-Communist Popular Front was struggling against the Coalition government formed in May 1992, which included representatives from the Democratic and Muslim Opposition. Without the help of the 201st Division, Emomali Rakhmonov would never have come to power. Russia reinforced the 201st Motorized Rifle Division as fighting in the Tajik conflict worsened and the division became more involved.

Additionally, the 201st and Russian border guards often switched sides, renting tanks out to the highest bidder and ferrying such charming characters as Juma Namangani across the borders by helicopter (covered in this book).

Interestingly, it appears that Tajik elites felt that a foreign military presence was needed to stave off the Uzbeks.

To quote a representative of Dushanbe intelligentsia, “given the situation, the Russian military base in Tajikistan is a deterrent factor for Uzbek leader Islam Karimov who would have made mincemeat of us without it.” The man refused to elaborate and merely said that “the relations between Dushanbe and Tashkent leave much to be desired.”

There’s no way of knowing for sure how widespread that feeling is, but it’s worth considering nonetheless.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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