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Tajikistan: Relations With Moscow Appear To Have Reached New Low

Tajik-Russian relations appear to have reached their lowest level since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tajikistan has been making unprecedented demands of Russia lately, including the gradual removal of Russian border guards from the Tajik-Afghan border. RFE/RL looks at this shift in policy and the possible reasons behind it.

Prague, 15 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian-Tajik relations are undergoing a transformation.

During the years of the Tajik civil war in the 1990s, many Tajiks saw Russia as an indispensable ally in the battle against Islamic militants. Now many in Tajikistan appear to be questioning Russia's role.

"The expiration of the agreement doesn't mean we should just pick up and leave."
A clear sign of that shift came last year when a 10-year bilateral agreement authorizing Russian troops to guard the Tajik border ran out -- and Tajikistan decided not to renew. Tajik Deputy Prime Minister Saidamir Zukhurov said it's time now for Tajikistan to take over guarding its border with Afghanistan.

"We are not asking for anything new from the agreement. We just said [the Russians] should implement the main point, which says that when Tajik troops are able to protect their own border, Russian troops would be withdrawn from that border," Zukhurov said.

Deputy Russian border-guard commander Aleksandr Manilov disagrees, saying Tajikistan is not prepared to guard the border with Afghanistan by itself. "We believe it is absolutely necessary to guard the Tajik-Afghan border together," he said. "The expiration of the agreement doesn't mean we should just pick up and leave."

It's not clear what's driving the changes, but some point to an evolving Russia-U.S. rivalry in Central Asia -- prompted by the war on terrorism and the presence of U.S. troops and bases in the region. The Tajiks, for one, may no longer feel they need the Russians as strongly as they did before.

One sign of this is the apparently increasing confidence of the Tajik military. In the past, Russia and Tajikistan have been close to agreeing a permanent Russian presence on Tajik soil. There was even talk of two Russian bases -- one near Dushanbe, where they are now, and the other at Chkalovsk in northern Tajikistan's Sughd Oblast.

Now, talk of the Sughd Oblast base has faded. And the Russians, it appears, can no longer take the Dushanbe facility for granted. Tajik authorities in October denied Russia permission to fly five SU-25 bombers from the Dushanbe base to a CIS base in Kyrgyzstan. Russia's Defense Ministry instead sent planes thousands of kilometers from Russia to mark the Kant base's opening.

There are limits, of course, to Tajik defiance.

Saifullo Safarov is the head of the strategic center within the Tajik president's administration. He told RFE/RL that there are methods each side could use to pressure the other into cooperating. "Of course, Russia could raise the question of Tajik debts," he said. "Of course, they could start pressing Tajik migrants working in Russia. I think if Russia starts pressing Tajikistan it could worsen our relationship. It's no good for Russia itself, because Tajikistan could use the situation to demand more from Russia, such as special terms for use of bases."

Both sides have money at stake. Russia says Tajikistan owes some $300 million to Moscow. Tajikistan says Russia owes Dushanbe $50 million for use of the observatory built in the high Tajik mountains near Nurek.

Annually, an estimated 1 million Tajiks make the journey north to Russia and Kazakhstan to engage in migrant labor. Their earnings are crucial to the health of the Tajik economy. They bring home a sum of money that by some accounts exceeds the country's annual national budget of $300 million.

(Soljida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)