Cementing Russia's Central Asian clout

Posted in Russia | 22-Oct-04 | Author: Sergei Blagov| Source: Asia Times

Presidents Imomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan (L), Vladimir Putin of Russia (C) and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan walk in Dushanbe October 18, 2004.
MOSCOW - In the immediate aftermath of Russia's unprecedented deal to exchange debt relief for military facilities in mountainous Central Asia, Moscow has joined a purely Central Asian grouping, indicating the Kremlin's continued determination to sustain its influence in this geopolitically competitive zone.

At a regional summit on Monday in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, Russia formally joined the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is a move that further boosts Russia's already significant clout in the region.

Russia joined CACO because of its own national interests, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told the CACO summit, but he added that developments in Central Asia were of crucial importance for the well-being of all of Eurasia.

Central Asian leaders are hailing Moscow's decision to join CACO. Without Russia, a decade of Central Asian cooperation has amounted to little more than talk, conceded Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov. "We recognize Russian interests in the region and Uzbekistan initiated Russia's CACO membership," Uzbek President Islam Karimov said, adding that Russia is not just a potential regional donor but also a country capable of forestalling regional conflicts.

CACO was founded in 1994 as the Central Asian Economic Cooperation Organization, and its membership includes all of the former Central Asian Soviet republics with the exception of reclusive Turkmenistan. CACO has pledged to create a regional common market and free trade zone within 15 years. This week's CACO summit included vows to develop ties with Afghanistan. For the first time, an Afghan delegation attended the CACO summit, headed by interim Vice President Hedayat Amin Arsala.

Tajikistan breakthrough
The CACO gathering came in the wake of Putin's significant foreign policy breakthrough. Over the weekend, he opened a new military base in Tajikistan. After years of negotiations, the new base, which is to house more than 5,000 soldiers, replaces the garrison of Russia's 201st Division. It will be the largest military base outside Russia. Moscow also formally took over Okno (Window), a space surveillance complex in Nurek, in the Tajik mountains near Chinese frontiers. Moscow had secured a practically free 49-year land lease of the space surveillance complex, which gives Russia further reach into East Asia. The Okno complex is understood to be a convenient locale to monitor China's missile launches.

The Nurek deal will allow Russia's Space Forces to feel confident for the next 50 years, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said without elaborating. According to the bilateral deal, Russia is to own all of Okno's equipment and other property.

Hence Russia and Tajikistan have resolved their long-standing debt dispute. Russia previously said Tajikistan owed more than US$300 million to Moscow. Tajikistan had said Russia owed Dushanbe $50 million for the use of the Okno observation post.

In exchange for the base and the Okno facility, Russia agreed to write off $242 million of Tajik debt. Moscow also pledged to invest $2 billion in the former Soviet state. For instance, Russian aluminum major Rusal plans to invest $560 million to build Tajikistan's Ragun hydropower plant, and will put up an undisclosed amount to build an aluminum plant in the Central Asian state as well.

Russia has made no secret that its security strategy in the region is being driven by economic considerations as well. On Saturday, Putin said Russia's "military presence in Tajikistan will not only guarantee our investment but will also guarantee stability in the region". The moves are seen as Moscow's response to the United States' military presence in Central Asia.

Tajikstan's strategic importance
Russia has long been pushing to establish a military base in Tajikistan to help prevent the further decline of its regional clout. Tajikistan is a strategically located country of 6 million people, bordering China to the east, Kyrgyzstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west and Afghanistan on its southern frontier. According to earlier bilateral agreements, the Russian 201st Division was due to be transformed into Russia's "fourth military base".

During the years of the Tajik civil war in the 1990s, many Tajiks saw Russia as an ally in the battle against Islamic militants. Rakhmonov's accession to power was in larger measure connected with Russian military and political backing. In the past, Russia and Tajikistan have been close to agreeing on a Russian military presence in Tajikistan. In April 1999, Russia and Tajikistan signed a treaty on alliance and partnership. They were understood to have agreed verbally to the setting up of a Russian military base in Tajikistan, while avoiding a formal military treaty.

The US has been pushing to boost ties with Tajikistan and Tajik authorities have been receptive to Washington's overtures. Tajikistan's main attraction for Washington is its strategic location along Afghanistan's northern border. Russian media have also reported an allegation that Rakhmonov had been offered $1 billion in US aid in exchange for refusing to set up a Russian military base in Tajikistan. Tajik officials denied the allegation.

Subsequently, US officials have sought to reassure Moscow that Washington's growing strategic and economic presence in Tajikistan is not aimed at reducing Russia's role, indicating that the upcoming establishment of a Russian base in Tajikistan would not affect relations between Washington and Moscow.

In the meantime, Tajikistan seems to be satisfied with its role as a shield between volatile Afghanistan and the rest of Eurasia. "Tajikistan is to serve as a buffer, to protect Europe from terrorism, extremism and illegal drugs," Rakhmonov said. "We have saved 22 million people from drug addiction," he added, referring to a joint operation by Tajik forces and Russian border guards to combat drug smuggling from Afghanistan.

Between the 201st Division and its border guards in Tajikistan, Russia has about 20,000 troops in the country. In 2003, a 10-year bilateral agreement authorizing Russian troops to guard the Tajik border ran out, and Tajikistan refrained from renewing the deal. Tajik military officials have stated that Tajikistan is prepared to take over the defense of the country's frontier with Afghanistan. Tajikistan already holds responsibility for patrolling its border with China. Tajik soldiers make up about 80% of the 14,000-member Russian border guard contingent in the country.

Over the weekend, Rakhmonov and Putin reiterated an earlier agreement to relocate the Russian guards, who hold 90% of the Tajik-Afghan border, from Tajikistan by 2006.

Putin opted to use his Central Asian tour as a forum to announce that terrorist attacks in Iraq were aimed at preventing President George W Bush's re-election in November. "International terrorism aims at causing maximum damage to President Bush and to forestall his second term re-election," Putin was quoted by RIA news agency. "If they succeed, they would celebrate a victory against America and the anti-terror coalition, and this could lead to more acts of international terrorism," he said.

Putin was careful to refrain from expressing clear bias in the November 2 election. "We respect any choice of the American people," he said. However, Putin's remarks can be interpreted to mean that Russia views Bush's re-election as a blow to international terrorism and vice versa. Russian media were also not exactly convinced by official caveats. Lenta.ru, an online news resource, ironically commented that "Putin solved an international terrorist conspiracy against President Bush".

Based in Moscow, Sergei Blagov covers Russia and post-Soviet states with special attention to Asia-related issues. He has been contributing to Asia Times Online since 1996. Between 1983 and 1997, he spent some seven years in Southeast Asia, mainly in Vietnam. In 2001 and 2002, Nova Science Publishers, New York, published his two books on Vietnamese history.

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