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Central Asia: Why Is Russia Suddenly Paying So Much Attention To Dushanbe And Bishkek?

During an official visit to Tajikistan last week, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the two countries are preparing an agreement to finalize a new Russian military base in Tajikistan. Ivanov also announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin will pay a visit to Dushanbe next month and that the base agreement will be signed during his trip. Why is Russia suddenly paying so much attention to Tajikistan?

Prague, 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Salohiddin Nasriddinov, the deputy foreign minister of Tajikistan, confirmed to RFE/RL that Moscow and Dushanbe are discussing details about a new Russian military base in Tajikistan. The initial decision about the base was made in 1999.

"What we signed in 1999 was a general agreement," Nasriddinov said. "On the basis of that agreement, now we are preparing three new, detailed documents. We -- the two parties -- need to clarify details such as the location of the military base and the number of Russian troops who will be stationed in the base."

The Russian and Tajik parliaments ratified the agreement on the base in 2001, but the issue has largely been forgotten since then. So the announcement of the base agreement by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov last week, as well as Putin's upcoming trip to Dushanbe, raise questions about the timing of Moscow's renewed interest in Tajikistan.

Tajik experts and the Russian media speculate that while the attention of the U.S. and the rest of the West is focused on Iraq, Moscow is taking advantage by making an effort to reassert its influence in Central Asia.

Russia is also setting up a new military air base in Kant, 25 kilometers from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Russian military experts are reportedly preparing the Kant air base to station Russian jet fighters. Up to 500 Russian soldiers will be deployed in Kant.

Moscow pulled its troops out of Kyrgyzstan in 1999 but during the past few months has been trying to forge a close alliance with Bishkek once again. Several Russian delegations have visited Kyrgyzstan to discuss bilateral cooperation on a variety of issues.

Vladimir Mikhailov, the chief of the Russian Air Force who visited Bishkek and Kant last week, told journalists that Moscow never gave up on Kyrgyzstan: "We have never gone far from Kyrgyzstan. It is not right to say that Russia is coming back to the country. You shouldn't put it like that. We are here at the demand of the situation."

Constantine Borovoy, a Moscow-based expert on political affairs, tells RFE/RL that strengthening its position in the Commonwealth of the Independent States is a top priority of Russian foreign policy: "It is the best time [for Russia] to try to regain the control of those lost lands. The other reason is the presidential election that takes place next year [in Russia]. Such issues in foreign policy would attract empire-oriented voters."

Russia has maintained its position in Central Asia, especially in Tajikistan, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Moscow still has a strong military presence in the country with more than 25,000 troops, including almost 11,000 border guards and some 14,000 soldiers from Russia's 201st mechanized division stationed there.

The situation changed dramatically, however, when the U.S. began its antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Despite criticism by the Russian military establishment, Putin had no choice but to allow the U.S. military access to Central Asia, despite the region being in Russia's traditional sphere of influence.

Since then, at least three Central Asian countries have called America their new strategic ally. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are hosting U.S.-led coalition troops.

In response, the U.S. has increased economic aid to the region.

During the last year, Tajikistan has received more than $100 million in assistance. The U.S. has promised the country around $50 million in grants and humanitarian aid for 2003. Washington raised its development assistance to Kyrgyzstan from $40 million in 2001 to more than $70 million in 2002. Neighboring Uzbekistan received around $120 million from the U.S. last year.

Russia cannot afford such financial assistance, and its position in the region has been weakening because of it.

Qiyomiddin Sattori, an expert from the Sipehr think tank in Dushanbe, says it is almost impossible now for Russia to protect its vital interests in Tajikistan, not to mention the entire region. "I think it is rather late for Russia to strengthen its military presence in Tajikistan. Russians had to think about it before September 11, 2001. Now, America has a strong military presence in the region. It has established military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. If Russia wants to build a powerful military base in Tajikistan, I think it is a bit too late for that," Sattori said.

However, Rashid Ghani, a local expert on political and international affairs, believes Tajikistan does not have to choose one country over another. In addition to Russia, China, India, and Iran have expressed their willingness to expand their cooperation with Tajikistan on military and security issues. "If Tajikistan is drawing attention from more than one side, Tajikistan would get more room to maneuver. Since Tajikistan does not often get attention from the rest of the world, it is good for the country to be open both to Russia and America, as well as to other [strategic] countries," Ghani said.

How will Tajik authorities ultimately react to Russia's apparent efforts to strengthen its position in the country? According to the Russian press, Ivanov has tried but failed to persuade Tajik leaders to limit their cooperation with the U.S.

Tajik Deputy Foreign Minister Nasriddinov declined to comment on the issue. Nasriddinov said Dushanbe will go ahead with the 1999 agreement on establishing a new Russian military base in the country. But he categorically ruled out the possibility of establishing additional Russian bases in Tajikistan. "There is no question of [yet more Russian] military bases being established in Tajikistan. We are not ready [for that]," he said.

Experts say Russia will not give up on Tajikistan so easily. Shortly after his trip to Dushanbe, Ivanov said: "Vistas of the relations with Tajikistan are bright and promising. Russia will do its best for their active development."

(RFE/RL's Tajik and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report.)

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.