Prague, 9 April 1999 (RFE/RL/) -- Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov has criticized plans to establish a Russian military base on the territory of one of Uzbekistan's neighbors -- Tajikistan.
Yesterday, in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and his Tajik counterpart Sherali Khairullayev reached agreement on establishing such a base. As Karimov prepared to board a plane at the Tashkent airport yesterday, on route to the Central Asian summit in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, he commented on the agreement.
"For me personally, it raises a question. Who needs to set up a Russian military base in Tajikistan? The [Russian-led] 201st Division is sitting in Dushanbe and Kurgan-Teppe and other places and other units are close to Leninabad (Khujand). There is a question here also, isn't this enough?"
During the Tajik civil war of 1992-97, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan sent troops to Tajikistan to help Russian soldiers already there guard the Tajik-Afghan border. During these years the purpose of these soldiers was to keep forces of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) from crossing back into Tajikistan from Afghanistan where they had fled in late 1992. But the Tajik government and the UTO signed a peace agreement in June 1997. Uzbekistan pulled its troops out of Tajikistan last November, saying the threat was over. Kyrgyzstan pulled its troops out in February for financial reasons, leaving only one battalion from Kazakhstan and a Russian-led force of 25,000 troops with the 201st Division as the core of these forces.
Karimov noted that the former opponents in Tajikistan are making progress toward full reconciliation, though slowly.
"If both sides are finding a common language, if all the opposition's armed forces were moved to Tajikistan, if there is no such serious powerful military force in Afghanistan, the question is -- what is the necessity of creating a new military base?"
The Uzbek president said the establishment of the base is likely to be the cause of new instability in the region.
"If such a base is created it will pose a threat to somebody. Nobody said exactly toward whom it is directed. But all the same any military base is directed against somebody. It means other sides will also prepare a response. This is natural."
Tajikistan's ambassador to Uzbekistan commented yesterday on the agreement to our correspondent in Tashkent. Ambassador Tojiddin Mardonov said there is no reason for concern and that the relationship between his country and Russia is natural and the result of decades of "being friends and neighbors." Mardonov said the establishment of the base will actually ease security concerns in Central Asia.
"The friendly relationship between Russia and Tajikistan first of all should be directed toward strengthening peace and stability in the region, to provide security and to prevent external threats. To eliminate drug trafficking is also one of the main goals."
Mardonov noted that last year in May, during Karimov's official visit to Moscow, an agreement was reached between Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to combat Islamic extremism. That deal did not threaten any other country but only disruptive elements within those three countries. Mardonov said there is no need for worry about the agreement for the base.
"This agreement between Russian and Tajikistan will not cause any threat to another country. Military ties between Russia and Tajikistan will not threaten any sovereign nation or its internal affairs."
However, Karimov said just before leaving for Ashgabat that the agreement will require more of Tajikistan than that country believes. He said he will speak to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov about the decision and offer him some advice before Rakhmonov goes on an official visit to Moscow next week.
"I will ask Rakhmonov, 'Oh my brother, think about this question first and then the consequences. Then go to Moscow and you will see what agreements are there."
Undoubtedly, the Tajik-Russian base agreement will be one of the topics at the Ashgabat summit. It also seems likely to further complicate relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe.