- - 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.

Mukhabbat Saidova, a political scientist at Tajikistan Media Alliance, a union of journalists in Dushanbe, said Russia didn’t comment on the conflict between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, “but we all realize that the sudden concession by Uzbekistan could not be possible without pressure from Moscow.”

Analysts say the issue demonstrates Tajikistan’s reliance on Russia in disputes with its neighbors, noting that Dushanbe now is lobbying Moscow to drop duties on oil exports to Tajikistan.

Yet relations between Russia and Tajikistan have been rocky recently.

In November, a Tajik court confiscated two Russian cargo planes and sentenced their pilots to 8½ years in prison for smuggling and illegally crossing state borders.

The pilots, a Russian and an Estonian, were arrested after making an unscheduled refueling stop in Tajikistan on a return flight from Afghanistan.

A fragile future

The pair were soon released, but their arrest, shortly before the renewal of the lease on Russia’s garrisons, angered Moscow and sparked a crackdown on Tajik labor migrants in Russia.

Hundreds of Tajik migrant workers were detained and many deported, while Russia’s public health chief threatened to bar all Tajik migrants from entering Russia, citing concerns they were spreading disease.

Tajikistan’s economy depends heavily on the $3 billion in remittances that about 1 million Tajik migrants send home each year — accounting for 45 percent of the country’s GDP.

Still, most Tajiks see Russia, which backed Mr. Rahmon in the 1992-1997 civil war that left up to 100,000 dead, as an important ally.

Analysts say that a cooling of relations between Russia and Tajikistan is likely to undermine confidence in the president, who has held power for 20 years in the post-Soviet era.

“If Russia will no longer accept our migrants, we will return home and sweep away Rahmon immediately,” said Firdaws, 23, a Tajik migrant working in the Russian city of Saransk.

Peace and stability in Tajikistan are still fragile, as was demonstrated by fighting between opposition militants and security forces in late 2010 and early 2011.

And since the “Arab Spring,” some Tajiks, fed up of dismal living conditions and their president’s unchallenged power, have been using social networks to call for revolution.

“[The Tajik authorities] are rich because we are poor,” said Dushanbe resident Akhmadali, 19. “They don’t care about us. We do not have normal education, medical aid and jobs but they have palaces and brand new cars.”