Accessibility links

Central Asia Report: August 3, 2003

3 August 2003, Volume 3, Number 26

PUTTING A PAW PRINT ON CENTRAL ASIA: TALKS ON TAJIK BASE DRAG ON... Declarations by Russia of plans to re-establish military bases in Central Asia have transformed discussions and reconfigured the geometry of the region's international relations and security. Talk abounds of a new geopolitical rivalry between the U.S., which has already imprinted its military footprint around the region, and the "old newcomer," Russia. Yet despite experience in the region, the "Bear" is actually having some difficulties fixing its paw print on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to earlier timetables, Russian military bases were supposed to have already been in place in both countries. Various explanations for the delays have been proposed. Officials tend to waffle about delicate negotiations and bureaucratic procedures. Some analysts suggest that Russia has not got the money to back up what it has promised. Others see signs that the Pentagon is lobbying in the background to stymie the Kremlin's plans.

A delegation from the Russian Defense Ministry, led by the Ground Forces chief of staff, Colonel General Aleksandr Morozov, arrived in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on 21 July to discuss various issues related to military-technical cooperation, ITAR-TASS reported. Moscow currently deploys some 15,000 troops in Tajikistan, the majority of which are ranged along the border with Afghanistan. Furthermore, in July 2002 the Russian military inaugurated a sophisticated optical tracking facility in Tajikistan that is capable of monitoring objects in space (see "Russia: Moscow Seen As Moving To Increase Military Ties With Central Asia,", 6 August 2002). But Morozov's meeting with his Tajik colleagues, including Tajik Defense Minister Colonel General Sherali Khairulloev, specifically focused on a Russian plan to reorganize the 201st Motorized Infantry Division into a regular army base (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 July 2003). The division has been stationed in Tajikistan since before the collapse of the USSR.

According to Asia-Plus on 22 July, the Russian and Tajik sides presented their views about how such a base would function and what sort of intergovernmental framework agreements would be required. Hopeful voices predicted that a joint protocol might be signed last week. The talks foundered, however, on disagreements that an unnamed source in the Tajik Defense Ministry's press center merely described as "technical aspects." Nevertheless, Khairulloev told journalists on 24 July that his country was still interested in hosting a Russian military base, adding that the two countries' defense ministries were still negotiating conditions for establishing the base. "In order to avoid differences, it is necessary to draw up legally correct, appropriate documents, which should meet the requirements of the laws and constitutions of both Tajikistan and the Russian Federation," said Khairulloev, quoted by Asia-Plus.

Yet it would be surprising if a few legalisms were the only reason that the matter has dragged on for months. Plans to elevate the Russian military installation to a fully-fledged base appeared to be well under way when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tajikistan in April to open a meeting of the CIS Collective Security Council. Putin visited a Russian military facility on the Tajik-Afghan border and told commanders of the 201st Motorized Division that the Kremlin intended to bolster its military presence in Tajikistan in response to reports that Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other Islamist militants were regrouping. After Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov endorsed the idea the two countries were expected to sign an accord formalizing the establishment of a base in May (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 1 May 2003). Little seems to have been resolved in the meantime, however, leading some Russian and Tajik media to speculate on the future of the Russian base. A persistent story asserts that the U.S. has offered Tajikistan $1 billion in aid if Dushanbe rejects the Russian base. The story, originally floated by the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in early July, has been denied by all concerned.

...WHILE INAUGURATION OF KYRGYZ BASE NOW SET FOR AUTUMN. After repeated postponements, the opening of a Russian air base outside the Kyrgyz town of Kant, 20 kilometers east of the capital Bishkek, is now scheduled for October. Plans call for the aerodrome to house some 700 soldiers and more than 20 Russian aircraft, including five Su-25 attack jets, five Su-27 fighters, transport planes, training jets, and helicopters, said on 24 July. The base's strategic purpose is to provide air support for an antiterrorism, rapid-reaction force of more than 5,000 troops from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan working under the auspices of the CIS Collective Security Treaty.

The official inauguration of the base was originally set for June 2003, then pushed to July, then delayed again. At a press conference on 9 July, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Colonel General Esen Topoev said that the Kant's reconstruction was nearly complete, but blamed unspecified technical hitches for postponing the opening, Interfax reported. AKIpress and other local media have reported that Moscow has invested 70 million rubles ($2.3 million) in refurbishing the base. Yet an eyewitness report, carried by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) on 15 July, found no evidence of major construction, although reconstruction allegedly started on 7 April 2003. "So far the Russians have laid concrete over a large area and built a new barracks for about 100 people," IWPR said. Some soldiers, officers, technicians, and builders were living in the barracks. The report concluded that the base was "nowhere near to completion."

On 9 July, Topoev said the final agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Russia on the use of Kant was "currently being examined by the government." Spokesmen for both sides subsequently indicated that only a few niggling, bureaucratic details needed to be ironed out between themselves before Kant could start operating. But to accept such an explanation for the delay is to ignore the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room. The presence of an American base at Bishkek's Manas Airport has provoked obvious speculation about strategic competition between Washington and Moscow in Kyrgyzstan, and the probability that the former has been working to undermine -- or at least retard -- the plans of the latter. Dismissing such concerns, Topoev told the Kyrgyz public on 9 July not to think of the two bases as adversaries but as an example of cooperation since they had different, complementary functions: the Kant air base was intended to protect the security of the Collective Security Treaty (CST) signatories, while Manas was set up to support operations in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 July 2003). In fact, he contended that it was a misnomer to call either a Russian or American facility. Since CST forces would be stationed at Kant it was not a Russian base and, as for Manas, "groups of international antiterrorist coalition forces are deployed there, which also include Russia," and thus it was "not a U.S. or NATO base," Topoev was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying. The following day, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov repeated the point after talks with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Askar Aitmatov. "Central Asia should not turn into an area of rivalry, nor will it," Ivanov told Kyrgyz television on 10 July.

On 24 July, CIS Collective Security Council Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha acknowledged that Washington was part of the picture as Bishkek and Moscow tried to finalize negotiations over Kant. He said that discussions were under way between the Russian military and U.S. officials over the air base. Among the details yet to be worked out was joint use of Kyrgyz airspace, AKIpress reported, citing Bordyuzha's statement. But even if negotiations between the Americans and Russians are wrapped up quickly and constructively it appears unlikely that Kant will be fully operational in October as advertised. Conceivably, a further delay might even suit the cash-strapped Russians, who presumably are not too concerned about the dawdling tempo of construction work at Kant. Having recaptured the West's attention by staking out their turf in Central Asia, they can develop it at their own pace.

CENTRAL ASIANS PERFORM MILITARY MANEUVERS, TRAINING AGAINST TERRORISTS. Despite some of the most blistering weather on record, military maneuvers are all the rage this summer, involving every Central Asian country except officially neutral Turkmenistan. Behind most of the exercises lurks a growing sense of threat, real or perceived, from terrorist groups.

Uzbekistan, which in the past has shunned programs designed to foster regional military cooperation, participated in two such initiatives last week. Air Defense Forces joined Kazakh and Kyrgyz troops for the second stage of the "Military Commonwealth-2003" joint exercises of CIS states, said on 24 July. The exercises began in mid-June and involved forces from Belarus and Russia's Baltic Fleet, according to This second batch of maneuvers opened on 5 July and will continue until mid-August. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan also took part last week in command-staff exercises under the auspices of the GUUAM grouping (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), said. They were aimed at developing military and civil cooperation between the member states in emergency situations. The exercises were attended by representatives of the emergency ministries of the GUUAM countries as well as U.S., Turkish, and Bulgarian observers.

Uzbekistan had troops to spare for additional, major military exercises that it conducted near its borders with Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Deutsche Welle reported on 22 July, quoting the head of the Uzbek Defense Ministry's press service, Lieutenant Colonel Kamil Djabarov. The exercises involved several thousand soldiers, including regular army units, Interior Ministry troops, and border guards. The mountainous location was selected because it was the site of attempts by Muslim militants to penetrate into Uzbek territory in 2001, according to Djabarov. He said that the exercises were intended to provide practice in coordinating the command of the various security agencies. They also were supposed to generate updates of the maps of the mountains, since the old maps predated the collapse of the USSR (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 July 2003).

In Tajikistan's Khatlon region, a five-day, joint-command staff drill between Russia's 201st Motorized Infantry Division and Tajik artillery and infantrymen began on 29 July, Asia-Plus reported. The soldiers are scheduled to practice supporting frontier posts on the Tajik-Afghan border. Also on 29 July, the Russian Border Force commenced a 10-day training for new graduates of Russian Border and Military Institutes assigned to serve in Tajikistan, the border force's press service reported. They also are due to practice patrolling the Tajik-Afghan border.

In Kazakhstan's Almaty Oblast, week-long military maneuvers involving Kazakh, British, and U.S. troops ended in Almaty Oblast on 24 July, Khabar news agency reported. In the exercises, titled "Steppe Eagle 2003," 500 Kazakh airborne troops and the Kazakh peacekeeping battalion Kazbat were joined by U.S. Special Forces and Scots Guards to practice repelling an incursion into Kazakh territory by armed groups. Assessing "Steppe Eagle 2003," a British warrant officer noted that Kazakh servicemen will serve in Iraq along with British forces, so it was very important for the Kazakhs to have a chance to learn how to work with their future partners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 July 2003).

Between 6-12 August, Kazakhstan and China are scheduled to host large-scale exercises of troops from Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states. The first stage of the exercise, titled "Interaction-2003," will be held in Kazakhstan's northeastern Semipalatinsk Oblast. Servicemen will practice isolating and eliminating terrorist groups, the Caspian News Agency ( reported on 28 July. The second stage, to be conducted in China, will see soldiers destroying a simulated terrorist camp and liberating hostages. According to the press service of the Tajik Defense Ministry, the overall goal of "Interaction-2003" is to implement provisions of the Shanghai Convention on the joint struggle against terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, Asia-Plus reported on 30 July. China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia have confirmed their participation in the exercises, with a public announcement from Uzbekistan still pending.

The SCO exercises will represent only the second time China has conducted military drills with a foreign country; the first occasion was with Kyrgyzstan last summer. Burgeoning security cooperation between China and Central Asia was also on display as the heads of Kyrgyzstan's and China's border services met for the first time in Bishkek on 28 July to discuss collaboration in fighting terrorism, religious extremism, smuggling, and illegal migration, Kyrgyz television reported. During the first half of 2003 some 200,000 people crossed the frontier between Kyrgyzstan and China's Xinjiang Province -- home to about 15-20 million Muslim Uighurs -- but only 48 trespassers were caught and detained, the television station said. A cooperation protocol between the Kyrgyz border service and Xinjiang's Department of Public Security is being prepared for signing.