Prague, 8 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev announced yesterday that a military agreement between his country and Tajikistan -- which already existed de facto -- has been formalized.
The move -- announced at the end of Sergeyev's visit to Dushanbe -- comes amid continuing instability in Tajikistan following five years of civil war and worries about the Islamist Taliban militia, which controls most of neighboring Afghanistan.
Tajik presidential press secretary Zafar Saidov -- speaking yesterday -- hinted at the benefits of cooperation with Russia and, in a broader context, with the CIS countries:
"The president of Tajikistan, Imomali Rakhmonov, emphasized that now, discussion should not only be about preserving the current structure of the CIS, of cooperation between the countries of the CIS in the sphere of security but also about moving forward to a qualitatively new level. The head of the Tajik government spoke about the necessity of broadening the parameters of cooperation in the sphere of the CIS countries' collective security with the goal of a common resistance to the new threats of illegal trafficking of weapons, illegal trading of narcotics and terrorism."
But the presence of Russian troops in Tajikistan breeds its own problems, and reactions from Tajikistan's Central Asian neighbors and possibly even Russian citizens may prove less than enthusiastic.
Though the Tajik civil war officially ended in June 1997 with the signing of the Tajik National Peace Accord in Moscow, outbreaks of violence remain a problem for the Central Asian nation. Russia's 201st Mechanized Division has been stationed in Tajikistan since the last days of World War II. The division was well positioned to participate in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. It later provided the backbone for the introduction of CIS peacekeeping forces not long after the Tajik civil war erupted.
Currently, Russia has under its command some 25,000 soldiers in Tajikistan. But most are ethnic Tajiks, many of whom volunteer to serve under Russian command because of higher wages and better living conditions.
Though the Russian unit has mediated disputes between various armed factions within Tajikistan, it has always been less concerned with Tajikistan's internal problems than with the situation along the Tajik-Afghan border. That was, and remains, the primary reason for the unit's presence. During the civil war, the stated purpose of stationing the 201st there was to keep out of Tajikistan armed units of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which government forces chased to northern Afghanistan at the end of 1992. Since the signing of the peace treaty, the soldiers' task has changed to drug interdiction.
But Russian soldiers have been accused in the Russian press of being part of the drug trade from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and on to points west. Russian military cargo planes are not subject to customs searches, and there has been much speculation that some military planes traveling from Tajikistan to regions in Russia carry heroin, opium, hashish and other narcotics. Personnel from Russian units have been caught with large amounts of narcotics, lending credibility to such allegations.
Russian soldiers are also targets for armed groups in Tajikistan who do not like the Russian presence and who may wish to cause problems for the Tajik government, which invited these troops. Though the murders of Russian soldiers in Tajikistan have decreased since the peace agreement was signed, they have not stopped. Russian troops are still advised not to leave base areas and never to do so alone.
The reaction of Tajikistan's neighbors to yesterday's announcement is far from certain. Uzbekistan has been very vocal about clearing any Russian military presence from the region. Uzbekistan sent troops as part of the CIS peacekeeping contingent but pulled them out last November.
Tashkent justified the action by pointing out that the troops were sent to guard the Tajik border against armed UTO units and that the signing of the peace accord relieved this concern. Tashkent has distanced itself from Moscow and fears a scenario like that in the Caucasus where Russian military help for Armenia has angered Azerbaijan.
Though Russia is financially strapped for cash, Moscow is likely to regard its far outpost in Tajikistan as indispensable. Tajikistan will probably be supplied with the latest military hardware and training and will have the knowledge that if Dushanbe finds itself in dire times, Moscow will be forced to support it.
During the civil war, Dushanbe was heavily dependent on both Moscow and Tashkent for support and was often seen as a puppet government of both. Now, Dushanbe needs only to be concerned about Moscow.
For Russian citizens, it means a continued drain on state funds. It also guarantees that there will still be reports of Russian casualties and deaths in Tajikistan.
For the Central Asian states, it means recalculating their relations with Tajikistan, which is the only country in the region where Russian troops have a base.