There aren’t many who’d cop to envying Tajikistan. Dam enthusiasts, perhaps. Those who follow the remnants of Farsi’s linguistic tendrils, or anyone who enjoys their dictators with eyebrows like Vlad Țepeș. The tally’s few. Most know Tajikistan simply as a nation as hollowed and diffuse as anything this side of the North Caucuses, and surmise there’s little worth lifting, and little to covet.
And often, they’re right. But in a twist of geopolitical fate, Tajikistan has rapidly become a nation not simply to follow as a flashpoint with Uzbekistan, as another ‘stan lost in the shuffle, but as a country, as bizarre as it may seem, to envy. For perhaps the first time in modern memory, the land of the Tajiks is no longer simply a crumbled, cratered brick in the New Great Game – it is, as of mid-2012, a linchpin.
How’d we get here? How did Tajikistan become a gleam in the eyes of the world’s only superpower and the three BRICS anchoring the East? How did a country as ravaged and frayed as Tajikistan become the jewel, or at least the keystone, of Central Asia?
There are a few threads to that answer, knotting one another, working both independently and concomitantly in leading to today’s situation. Nearly every agreement in Central Asia is taken with a weather eye on another nation — everything, even those agreements bilateral in name, is webbed to something else. And sometimes this means that things come to a head in the unlikeliest of states. Which is why Tajikistan, suddenly, presents a perfect microcosm for the issues and enmity now swirling the larger Asian stage.
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The first threads begin, naturally, with Tajikistan’s former colonizer. Russia and Tajikistan have carried a contentious relationship every since the waning days of the Tajik Civil War. Propping Emomali Rahmon’s old-guard coterie, Russia’s 201st Motorized Rifle Division played a heavy, pivotal role in helping the president quash the Islamo-democratic chimera taking on governmental forces. Without the Russian forces helping Moscow’s former satellite, it’s entirely possible that a Taliban-tinged regime would be ruling from Dushanbe, allowing arms, drugs, and human capital to flow through the Wakhan Corridor with impunity.
Of course, that didn’t – or hasn’t yet – come to pass. And so, with Rahmon still ruling his fiefdom of Dushanbe, and with his family still controlling the country’s coffers, the Russians remained. The 201st, with over 7,000 soldiers, decamped from the battlefields and settled into three southern bases, in Dushanbe, Kulob, and Qurghonteppa, offering services as a “CIS peacekeeping” force until 1999. Tajikistan and Russia then signed a bilateral agreement – though it took five years to ratify – allowing the Russian troops to remain in Tajikistan through 2014 under the auspices of the CSTO Rapid Development Forces. Rechristened the 201st Military Base, the group represents Moscow’s largest ground-force contingent outside of Russia proper, and is the country’s southern-most garrison among former principalities.
At the time of the signing, there was little idea as to the watershed 2014 would provide. The countries’ bilateral agreement was pre-9/11. Pre-war. Prelapsarian. No one knew of bin Laden’s plans. No one knew of NATO’s impending invasion, or the ensuing quagmire, or the rearguard retrenchment the allied forces would schedule for 2014. It’s … possible that NATO brass somehow noted that the Russians may vacate the three bases come 2014 – but if that played any role in NATO’s departure schedule, it never showed. (Even if it did come into consideration, its importance was likely dozens of slots lower than, say, NATO fiscal constraint, or American electoral consideration, or any of the myriad reasons 2014 fit the schedule.)
Regardless, where Tajikistan once feared Taliban infiltration on its southern lines, Dushanbe will soon see a NATO exit passing through its borders. And where Russia once carried favored status for security in Tajikistan, America now seems a perfect fit to stamp its personnel and polity into Tajikistan’s military bases.
Or so the theory goes, because Tajikistan is suddenly, stubbornly, refusing to grant Moscow the blanket control the 201st once enjoyed. Where Rahmon and then-President Dmitri Medvedev had only last year agreed upon a 49-year extension of the base lease — mirroring the agreements Russia’d found in Abkhazia and Armenia — Rahmon has, with with the sort of politicking usually reserved for Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, reneged.
According to his office, Rahmon has dropped the length of the potential lease to 10 years, with a 10-year option thereafter. More importantly, however, Tajikistan has jumped the cost of the base — which was leased to the Russians in return for mere military and technical aid — to staggering heights. While the Tajikistanis denied initial reports that they’d sought $300 million for Russia’s continued use, The Moscow Times reports that Dushanbe is still looking for approximately $230 million — a figure which has made Russia blanch.
Subsequent negotiations have quickly morphed into theatrical farce. Land Forces Commander Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin called the initial stake “unacceptable … oriental haggling, with no end in sight,” saying that the Russians may merely abandon Tajikistan once 2014 arrives. Tajikistan media responded that Chirkin’s claims amounted to “blackmail,” but Nikolai Makarov, head of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, doubled down, reaffirming that the Defense Ministry would not allocate any payment for the bases.
Once negotiations moved past mere rhetoric and into actual discourse, one of the funnier moments of post-Soviet diplomacy worked its way into the media:
On [July 5], at the meeting of the Council of CIS Defense Ministers, held in Kaliningrad, Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloyev surprised everyone with his statement … that Tajikistan had not studied the Russian version of the agreement about the prolongation of the deployment of the 201st Russian military base on its territory.
Tajikistan was preparing its own version, Khayrulloev said. “Nobody has received our version, and no one has read the Russian version yet,” he said. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov responded: “You should have read it, we sent it a long time ago.”
Absurdity aside, the two camps found each other far from a satisfactory middle. Russia remained irked; Tajikistan remained determined. And from Moscow’s point of view, there was only reason why Dushanbe had turned suddenly recalcitrant.
“Apparently, someone in this impoverished and extremely corrupt country is hell-bent on making a quick buck. … Like many other developing countries, Central Asian nations continue to believe in the unlimited power of the U.S. military, and perhaps hope that they will protect them from the Taliban better than Russia,” wrote Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis. “For some reason Dushanbe believes that Russia needs the base more than Dushanbe does. Delusions run deep.”
And there, at last, was both the conceit and the root of Russia’s problems in its former protectorate. As part of the Northern Distribution Network, Tajikistan is set to reap a significant chunk of the $500 million the US will spend – as well as certain militaristic technology it will leave behind – as it speeds its ground forces out of Afghanistan, on to Ulyanovsk, and then back to America. (Interestingly, there’s been little States-side outcry about America’s potential interactions with Rahmon’s splenetic regime.) Moscow sees a cash influx set to to flow northward, and it sees its former satellites — first Tajikistan, and then Uzbekistan, and now Kyrgyzstan — greedily capitulating to their former Cold War adversary.
Now, that’s not to say that Russia is averse to America’s money — the stopover in Ulyanovsk will also see Russia receive a healthy profit. And, as Khramchikhin pointed out, Moscow should likely consider retreat from Dushanbe for unrelated reasons, as Russia’s southern security umbrella risks stretching the country’s military capabilities thin. But those reasons would just be convenient excuses: Any Russian retrenchment will come off as less a matter of fiscal constraint and more an issue of wounded pride. This is Russia’s sphere, and it, and the rest of the international community, sees it shrinking.
To see it wane in such an obvious, public manner reflects many of the issues surrounding Russia’s bloated military. A recent article in Les Echos detailed President Vladimir Putin’s announced framework for rebuilding Russia’s rusting military: Promising a “rearmament like no other,” Putin claimed that he’ll spend some 600 billion euros during his tenure improving the military, all while culling the army ranks from one million soldiers to 145,000 highly trained shock troops. Putin’s team will also amp production, attempting to build 1,000 helicopters, 600 planes, and 100 pieces of “military spacecraft equipment” by 2020.
But issues of corruption, production capacity, and outmoded ideas threaten any improvements in the military’s capabilities. These holes — made obvious in Georgia, set on the backdrop of the potential loss of Tartus — serve simply to exacerbate the situation in Tajikistan, and drops Russia’s hand all the more.
Confusion about the bases’ future still reigns, as Chirkin claimed last Tuesday that the two sides had struck a 49-year accord — only to have Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry promptly deny any report of agreement. Meanwhile, Tajikistan — despite American Rep. Dan Burton’s claims that the US sees Tajikistan as a site for potential military installations — denies offering the Americans any usage of their bases. The situation festers, and drags.
But the damage is done. Even if Russia manages to maintain its three bases in the south, and even if the cost remains what it is, Russia’s hold looks that much more tenuous. And all that blustered talk of retrenchment rings not as a hegemon dictating its terms, but as a waning power that can resort to words alone.
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Of course, none of this negotiating between Tajikistan and Russia takes place in a vacuum. And there’s one area, one power, beyond the NATO coalition that’s taken a keen focus on the bases’ final developments, and on the direction Tajikistan will choose.
Forgoing any kind of military bellicosity, China has opted for a softer economic approach in attempting to pull Tajikistan into its orbit. On a recent state visit to Beijing, Rahmon reportedly tallied $1 billion in Chinese investment for his country. (Pravda erroneously reported that the Dushanbe had received $2 billion in loans, perhaps indicative once more of Russian fears of international encroachment.) Among the proposed projects include roads, a coal-driven heat and power plant, and a cement production plant to be constructed in Shahritus, set near the Afghanistani border and estimated to cost upwards of $600 million.
Tajikistan has also invited invited China’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation to search for underground energy reserves in order to complement Dushanbe’s hydrocarbon capabilities. The invitation will pit CNP against Russia’s Gazprom, whose work thus far has reportedly left Tajikistani authorities “unimpressed.”
While such Chinese investment bodes well in the short-term, a handful of observers shared notes of concern about Beijing’s recent inroads. The most notable came from Sergei Zhiltsov, director of the CIS Center, who claimed that such a “debt pit” could eventually lead to China wresting control of Tajikistan’s “mineral resources and ‘strategic’ roads and enterprises.”
It’s worth noting that the CIS Center is run out of the Russian Foreign Minister’s Diplomatic Academy — and is thus not quite as independent as declared — but Zhiltsov may be on to something. As it is, China holds 41 percent of Tajikistan’s foreign debt, and the new loans are set to boost that share to 70 percent. Moreover, China has a recent history of coopting lands from Dushanbe: Tajikistan last year ceded 1,122 kilometers-squared of its eastern region to China, representing a loss of approximately one percent of Tajikistan’s territory.
The newest billion-dollar investment augments China’s growing push into Central Asia, and likely augurs more to come. Not only had Beijing, dating from 2005, previously pledged $900 million to Dushanbe, but China is now Uzbekistan’s second-largest trading partner, at $5 billion. Meanwhile, as pointed out in the Asia Times Online, Kyrgyzstan “increasingly turns to China for pragmatic economic cooperation, investment and financial aid,” with the two nations recently signing a $389 million loan agreement. These moves, independent for one another, make sound economic sense — but when taken in concurrence represent a building sense of Chinese bulge and interference in Russia’s erstwhile sphere.
And the Russians have taken note. As Khramchikhin concluded in his caustic commentary: “Clearly, the rivalry between Russia and China in Central Asia is not just inevitable, it has already begun.”
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Russia and China — and, to a lesser extent, the US and EU — are the nation-states recognized as stakeholders in the New Great Game, the ones everyone expects to vie for control of Turkestan. Now, though, it appears that there’s a fifth player, one only just waking up to the potential of Central Asia: India. And New Delhi’s targeted Tajikistan as the first foothold in this area of swelling importance.
For numerous reasons — disorganization and isolationism among them — India has taken a longer tack in asserting itself in Central Asia, and it carries none of the historic, militaristic, or economic weight that Russia, America, and China offer. But fearing yet another in China’s string of pearls – the sinecized states that run from Nepal to Sri Lanka – the Indians have finally begun making inroads through the Pamirs.
To be sure, the relationship between Tajikistan and India’s not begun carte blanche. Both Dushanbe and New Delhi supported anti-Taliban resistance in the late-’90s, cooperating on a medical facility in southern Tajikistan and fostering common networks within the Northern Alliance. Both countries also signed a bilateral defense agreement 10 years ago, allowing India to refurbish the Ayni airfield, located but 15 miles outside Dushanbe. While the Tajikistanis took over management of Ayni in 2010, some still consider the base India’s lone foreign military base, with reports of Indian MiGs stationed alongside.
Now, as part of India’s “Connect Central Asia Policy,” New Delhi’s utilizing Dushanbe to reach out. The rubric is based on the Indian-African Union “e-network,” which attempts to connect New Delhi with the continent’s distending markets. The new “Connect” framework seeks to spike India’s goods and personnel trade with Central Asia, increasing commercial activity and coordinating assorted projects. Included in the new strategy is an Indian-Central Asian University in Kyrgyzstan, focused on information technology, management, philosophy, and languages, as well as increased air connectivity and cross-boundary medical work.
But for India, everything stars with Tajikistan. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna recently visited Dushanbe to discuss cooperative stances on energy and counter-terrorism, as well as the security situation of India’s burgeoning ally, Afghanistan. Despite the fact that the India and Tajikistan saw only $22.11 million worth of interstate trade as recently as 2007-08, Krishna called the relationship “excellent,” and unveiled plans for increased cooperation in the energy sphere — especially as Tajikistan increases its moves toward hydro-energy.
In addition to the economics of the relationship — and the security issues stemming from the NATO withdrawal — it’s likely that India also sees Tajikistan as the quickest route to entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is rapidly, though not worrisomely, becoming the econo-political bloc carving out interests in Central Asia. (It is a position made all the more pertinent as the CSTO implodes.) No better geopolitical system highlights Russia’s and China’s dominance in Central Asia quite as well, and, despite Chinese assurances that the SCO would not evolve into a military bloc, New Delhi will want to hitch as close as possible to any dialogue. Joining the SCO would also give India a multipartite avenue for addressing China’s recent half-billion dollar road improvements in the disputed Aksai Chin region.
It should be noted that any Indian ascension would likely come alongside Pakistan’s entry, as the SCO’s current members would seek a counterweight to balance New Delhi’s sway. But it wouldn’t be the first time India’s been used in such a manner: The country provided the British with a counterweight against the encroaching tsarist armies during the original Great Game, thus providing a bit of historical precedent in Asia’s vast center.
Indeed, as the two British and Russian empires grew ever-closer in the mid-19th century, Lord Curzon, India’s fin de siècle viceroy, noted, “Whoever controls Central Asia, controls the world.” And while Curzon may have overreached — few believe the Bolsheviks and Mongolians controlled the 20th century — his thesis, looking at the current situation, may yet circle back upon itself. With the current debate and trade deals swirling the Pamirs, it may yet be shown that as Tajikistan goes, so, too, will the rest of Asia. And while the position of a bellwether is always precipitous, it is one, in the end, to envy.
Photo Credit: Brian Harrington Spier
Tajik military vehicles stranded between roulements.