- - Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tucked away in what is colloquially known as the “post-Soviet space,” the tiny, landlocked Central Asian republic of Tajikistan seems like an unlikely strategic prize. Yet a potentially significant geopolitical tug of war is brewing there between the United States and Russia. The stakes of this unfolding contest are high and involve continued Western access to Central Asia and, quite possibly, the political future of at least part of the region.

For the United States, where successive administrations have by and large neglected Central Asia, interest in Tajikistan is something of a product of necessity. Long preoccupied with the war on terrorism’s first front, America is beginning to think more broadly about how it approaches Eurasia. Because of its strategic location bordering Afghanistan, Tajikistan has begun to loom large in Washington’s calculus.

Thus, on a recent official delegation to the Central Asian state, Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican and senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, indicated that the United States sees Tajikistan as a potential location for military logistics. As envisioned, the notional Tajik base would replace the transit center operating in nearby Kyrgyzstan, which is slated to close after NATO forces complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Tajik officials, including Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi, have been quick to deny that any negotiations are under way with Washington on this issue. But, given the interest of Mr. Burton and other U.S. officials, they soon could be.

Russia, meanwhile, simply wants to remain. The Kremlin has long fielded a significant military presence throughout its former holdings in Central Asia, but its military base No. 201 in Tajikistan is the most significant. The facility, which houses some 7,500 Russian servicemen, has operated since 1999 as a forward line of defense against Islamic militancy originating in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The base is slated to close in 2014 unless Moscow and Dushanbe can reach an agreement on lease extension.

Negotiations over the facility have been acrimonious. The Kremlin initially balked at the $250 million annual price tag that Dushanbe attached to Russia’s continued military operations on its territory. Moscow’s need for the facility has outweighed financial considerations, however, and Russian officials are in intensive negotiations with their Tajik counterparts. If they get their way, Russia’s military will remain ensconced there for another 49 years, thereby cementing Dushanbe’s eastward trajectory for the foreseeable future.

Russian officials have been confident in Tajikistan’s decision — perhaps overly so. Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry recently took the unusual step of publicly denying a claim by Gen. Vladimir Chirkin, the Russian army’s ground forces commander, that the Tajik government already had acquiesced to a continued Russian military presence. In the aftermath of Gen. Chirkin’s announcement, Mr. Zarifi took to the media to insist that talks with Moscow were continuing.

On the outskirts, meanwhile, other strategic players are gathering. Indian interest in Central Asia has exploded in recent years and, as a result, New Delhi — also bracing for NATO’s exit from Afghanistan — has shown renewed interest in its only overseas military base, in Farkhor, Tajikistan. India has gone so far as to spend $70 million for upgrades at the facility. As such, Indian officials have a keen interest in the ultimate outcome of the jockeying for position by Russia and the United States that is taking place in Dushanbe.

Undoubtedly, so does Iran. The Islamic republic has deep cultural and political ties to Tajikistan and played an outsized role in that country’s civil war in the mid-1990s. Now buffeted by international sanctions and fearful of Western military action against its nuclear facilities, Tehran is sure to be watching the unfolding deliberations closely — and communicating its preference for a pro-Russian, rather than a pro-American, outcome.

Tajikistan has some hard choices to make. The government of President Emomali Rahmonov has long hewed a pro-Kremlin foreign policy line, despite squabbles with Moscow over basing. Russia, moreover, has held out the promise of political support and cheap weapons — commodities that Tajikistan, grappling with a bellicose Uzbekistan to its north and west and an unstable Afghanistan to its south, sorely needs. As a result, Dushanbe could well decide to take the most predictable route and simply rubber-stamp Russia’s military presence anew while giving Washington the cold shoulder.

It cannot have been lost on Tajik officials that, for perhaps the first time since the Soviet collapse two decades ago, their country has real geopolitical options. The main question is whether they will choose to explore them.

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council. Tyler McKinley is co-editor of Eurasia Security Watch.

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