- - Friday, May 11, 2012

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — Longtime allies Tajikistan and Russia are under strained relations over Moscow’s lease of three garrisons, as NATO’s imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan makes Central Asian bases a valuable asset.

Russia is expected to soon sign a 49-year lease for three garrisons — near the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and the southern cities of Kulyab and Kurgan-Tube. The garrisons serve as the base for the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, which, with its 7,500 troops, is Russia’s largest foreign deployment of servicemen.

But Tajik officials are hoping that Russian President Vladimir Putin will make concessions toward their country’s energy needs and provide backing that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon needs to maintain public support.

Last month, Mr. Rahmon described relations between Dushanbe and Moscow as “allied” but also noted that other nations are competing for a strategic presence in Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet republics.

“On my desk, I have a folder containing offers from other states, promising wonders in return for opening their military bases and other facilities, but we are not even considering them,” Mr. Rahmon said during the opening ceremony of a Dushanbe branch of a Russian university.

Mr. Rahmon didn’t specify which countries had made offers, but local analysts say the prospect of using a military base in Tajikistan would be attractive to Washington.

Neighboring Kyrgyzstan currently hosts a Russian base at Kant and a U.S. base at Manas, which has played a key role as a transit center for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has said the U.S. lease on the Manas base will not be renewed after it expires in 2014.

“If Kyrgyzstan refuses fully to host the NATO military base on its territory, we have no doubt that Washington will request Dushanbe to do so,” said Alisher Saidov, a political scientist at the Strategic Research Center in Dushanbe. “They are leaving [Afghanistan], but I think they want to have some strength in the region after 2014.”

A reliance on Russia

U.S. officials say they are not involved in negotiations with any Central Asian country about opening a new base but intend to continue dialogue with Kyrgyzstan.

“We have no other plans to establish bases in the region,” Robert O. Blake, Jr., assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia affairs, said while visiting Dushanbe in March.

“In terms of what might happen after the [Manas] contract expires, we have said many times we are prepared to engage with President Atambayev’s government at their convenience to discuss the future of [Manas] and to try to reach an agreement on that.”

Political observers say Mr. Rahmon’s comments were aimed at pressuring Moscow to heal recent divisions between Russia and Tajikistan and help ensure Tajikistan’s energy security.

Uzbekistan, a longtime rival of and sole gas exporter to Tajikistan, suddenly cut off gas supplies on April 1. A new contract was signed, and gas transfers resumed on April 14.

But disputes between the two countries remain — in particular over Tajik plans to construct a dam that Uzbekistan says will leave it with severe water shortages.

Story Continues →