Russian Military Base in Khujand: Ambition or Necessity?

As Taliban forces are reportedly amassing on Afghanistan’s northern borders and the anniversary of the violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, approaches, rumors about the opening of a long-awaited Russian military base in northern Tajikistan are resurfacing. But the fate of the base, which has failed to materialize despite receiving formal approval in April, 1999, remains strangely unclear — and Tajikistan’s military preparedness along with it.

The base, to be located in Khujand, would augment the military network Russia already enjoys in Tajikistan in the garrisons of the Motorised Cavalry Division 201 in Dushanbe, Kurgan-Tyube and Kulob. So far, the Khujand (formerly Leninabad) region, in the west of the Fergana Valley, has been free of a Russian military presence, not including a small military contingent during the Soviet period.

After December 1991, Russia, heir to Soviet military assets, failed to give the new Tajikistan authorities either weapons, vehicles, or ammunition. Tajikistan became the only post-Soviet state unable to build a national army and found itself militarily dependent.

Russia, seeing that civil war was already starting to erupt in central and southern Tajikistan, committed itself to assisting in the creation of Tajikistan’s military force only under the favorable terms contained in the March 1993 treaty on friendship, co-operation, and mutual assistance. Tellingly, the first step toward implementation of the treaty was appointing an ethnic Russian, Aleksandr Shishliannikov, to the post of Tajikistan’s first defense minister. Over time, the Tajik air force was composed exclusively of Russian pilots; Russian soldiers acted as advisors; and the Russian 201st Battallion actively supported the military wing of the government’s Popular Front against opposition groups during the 1993-96 civil war.

A 1993 treaty on collective security formally assigned the Russian army a leading role in the civil war in Tajikistan in a way that was politically painless, uniting Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in the framework of collective peacekeeping forces. Indeed, a total of 400 military personnel from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan remained in Tajikistan until as late as 1997, too small to affect the outcome of the war, but large enough to maintain the appearance of solidarity among the CIS states of Central Asia necessary for Russia’s credibility.

Support of outright Russian military assistance increased in the spring of 1995 when the Tajik army began to meet its first serious military challenges, particularly in Tavildara. It took Colonel Makhmud Khudoiberdiev, leader of rebel forces in Kurgan-Tube, only one day to bring his tanks as far as the capital, Dushanbe, coercing President Rakhmonov to grant some of the rebels’ demands.

In 1997, Russian forces proved instrumental in routing rebel forces from their northern strongholds. And, following the bloody hostage crises in southern Kyrgyzstan in August and September 1999, members of the legislative assembly of Osh formally urged Kyrgyzstan’s president to initiate talks with the Kremlin to open a Russian base in the south, across the Tajikistan border. The hostage-takers were ethnic Uzbeks from the Fergana Valley who had fought for five years with Tajik opposition forces.

In November 1999, Vladimir Putin, then Russian prime-minister, at inauguration ceremonies for President Imomali Rakhmonov, referred to Tajikistan as “a strategic partner.” Putin discussed the future of the base with President Rakhmonov and senior officials and declared, “Russian borderguards will stay in Tajikistan as long as the situation may require.”

Since then, little information on the Russian base has leaked to the press. The Russian Duma has yet to ratify the treaty that would approve the opening. But plans to open the base appear to have been shelved pending the conclusion of Moscow’s costly armed conflict with Chechnya. Retired Major General Farruh Niyezov, formerly the first person to head Tajikistan’s armed forces in 1991-1992, asserts that there are no funds for Russian military presence in Khujand.

Politically, the base could still serve Tajik and Russian interests. The threat of radical Islam – which the Tajik and Uzbek authorities have actually fostered in recent years – remains the ostensible motivation for combining forces with Russia. Indeed, public opinion polls claim that 66.2 percent of respondents in Tajikistan favor having a Russian military base in their country.

Likewise, it is in Russia’s interests to stave off perceived challenges from Central Asia. Uzbekistan is the only CIS state never to have had any Russian military presence or military advisors since gaining independence. Worse for Russia, Uzbek army units are today the best trained in the former USSR and are taking a stand in many parts of Fergana Valley. The resolution of the Khujand base issue will help untangle the blurred lines of responsibility – and accountability – that for years have entwined Tajikistan and Russia.
Editor’s note:
Oleg Panfilov, a citizen of Tajikistan, is the Director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Emergency Situations of the Russian Journalists’ Union. Since 1994, he served as head of the Monitoring Unit of the Glasnost Defense Fund in Moscow, and has worked as correspondent for Nezavisimaia Gazeta, Komsomolets Tadzhikistana/Soglasie, and other publications.