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Russian Extradition Of Tajik Fuels 'Quid Pro Quo' Speculation

Russia and Tajikistan are currently engaged in difficult negotiations over the future of military cooperation between the two countries. Against this backdrop, Moscow's abrupt decision to extradite former Tajik Interior Minister Yakub Salimov after holding him since June 2003 has given rise to talk of quid pro quo.

Before his fall from grace, Salimov was an imposing figure on the Tajik political scene. According to biographical information provided by Deutsche Welle and Interfax, Yakub Salimov was a paramilitary commander in 1992-93. As civil war engulfed Tajikistan, Salimov was one of the figures who helped to bring about current President Imomali Rakhmonov's rise to prominence. Salimov went on to serve as Tajikistan's interior minister from 1993 to 1995, wielding considerable power under chaotic conditions. In 1995, he became Tajikistan's ambassador to Turkey, before returning to Dushanbe in 1996 to chair his country's Customs Committee. In the spring of 1997, he saved President Rakhmonov from an assassination attempt in Khujand. By year's end, however, Salimov had been forced to flee Tajikistan after a series of political missteps and unwise alliances amid the jockeying that accompanied the end of the civil war.

After 1997, various sources place Salimov in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. He also traveled frequently to Moscow, where Russian security forces arrested him on 21 June 2003, acting on an international warrant Tajik authorities had issued several years earlier. A lull ensued after the arrest, as months passed and Salimov languished in Moscow's Lefortovo prison.

When it finally came, movement on the case was swift. Salimov was extradited to Tajikistan with minimal fuss on the evening of 24 February, Deutsche Welle reported on 26 February. Though the charges against Salimov -- which include treason and the organization of a coup attempt -- carry the death penalty, a source in the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office told Interfax on 25 February, "Russia extradited Salimov under a guarantee that he would not face capital punishment."

Official Tajik reaction to the extradition has been muted. Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 26 February that Salimov has been undergoing questioning since 25 February. Bobokhonov added that the charges of treason and coup plotting were filed in Salimov's absence, and only now will an investigation be able to show whether or not Salimov actually had a hand in the events in question.

Meanwhile, some observers saw a link between Moscow's decision to extradite Salimov and ongoing Russian attempts to parlay a temporary troop deployment into a permanent military base in Tajikistan. A new round of negotiations on Russian-Tajik military cooperation began last week, and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 26 February that it was at that time that Tajik officials arrived in Moscow for Salimov. (Dodojon Atovulloev, a Moscow-based Tajik opposition journalist, provided partial corroboration, telling RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 24 February that Russia's prosecutor-general issued the order to extradite Salimov on 29 January, although the extradition itself did not take place until 24 February.) The newspaper goes on to suggest that Russian negotiators "may have succeeded in obtaining concessions from their Tajik counterparts over the military base in exchange for Salimov's extradition."

Russian political observer Arkadii Dubnov concurs. He told Deutsche Welle in a 26 February interview: "There's a serious chance that the Salimov case may have been a bargaining chip between Moscow and Dushanbe. Moscow has a bone to pick with Dushanbe over the tough going in the negotiations on the status of the Russian military base in Tajikistan and the situation with Russian border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border. Salimov's extradition may have been intended to encourage a reciprocal gesture from Tajik authorities toward Moscow."