Russia puts pressure on Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan

By bne IntelliNews May 29, 2013

Clare Nuttall in Astana -

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the autumn of 2012, there has been a sharp divergence in the two countries' relations with Moscow. Kyrgyzstan has moved ever closer, in economic and political terms, with Russia rewarding this loyalty financially, while the Tajik government has delayed signing an agreement extending Russia's military presence in the country - though fears about new instability as the withdrawal of troops continues may force President Emomali Rakhmon back into line.

The deals agreed by Putin four months after he returned to the presidency were heralded as a new era in Russia's relations with the two republics on the very edge of the post-Soviet space. His visit to Bishkek in September yielded several agreements, including an extension on the least of the Kant military base, with a commitment from the Kyrgyz government that the nearby US airbase at Manas international airport would finally shut down in 2014. In return for these concessions, around $500m of Kyrgyzstani debts to Russia are being written off and Russia is co-financing two major hydropower projects, Kambarata-1 and the Upper Naryn Cascade.

In the eight months since Putin's visit, the government-level agreements have been followed up by further Russian penetration into the Kyrgyz economy. Gazprom is close to acquiring Kyrgyzstan's cash-strapped gas transmission and distribution company KyrgyzGaz. Negotiations dragged out longer than expected, but at an intergovernmental commission in April officials from both sides expressed the political will for the deal to go ahead, with Kyrgyz President Zhantoro Satybaldiyev saying that Gazprom's takeover would end Kyrgyzstan's gas shortages.

The takeover of Zalkar Bank - the successor to AsiaUniversalBank, which was Kyrgyzstan's largest bank until the April 2010 revolution - by Russia's Investment and Trade Business Holding was also agreed during the commission. After nationalising AUB, Bishkek had planned a bailout package for the bank, but this was put on hold after ethnic clashes broke out in the south of the country in June 2010, and the subsequent reconstruction drained the government's coffers. Instead, the Russian investor bought 90% of Zalkar for KGS193m ($4m) in a deal that closed on May 3.

Further cementing this close relationship is Kyrgyzstan's expected accession to the Customs Union in 2014, which currently includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. While touted as an economic rather than a political initiative, entry to the Customs Union will bring Kyrgyzstan even closer into the Russian sphere of influence. This will also reduce the influence of China - Kyrgyzstan's powerful neighbour and Russia's main rival for dominance in the region - within Kyrgyzstan; the experience of the three existing Customs Union members has shown that trade has increased within the bloc at the expense of other trading partners.

Holding out

Although Putin's visit to Dushanbe in October 2012 appeared equally fruitful at the time, things have progressed much less smoothly since.

The main source of contention is Tajikistan's failure to ratify the agreement extending Russia's military presence in the country. Under an agreement, the Russian army's 201st base - which has operations in three Tajik cities, Dushanbe, Kulob and Qurgonteppa - will have its lease extended from 2014, when it is due to expire, until 2042, with the option for further extensions.

Ratifying the deal was expected to be a formality, but Dushanbe has since stalled as it holds out for additional concessions on top of those agreed in October 2012. Dushanbe is understood to be hoping that Russia will guarantee planned investments in its hydropower sector and pay $200m to help modernise the Tajik army.

The different paths the two countries relations have taken illustrate their different relationships with the main regional superpower. "The political chaos in Kyrgyzstan in the last few years, especially the latest revolution in 2010, played into Russia's favour. The Kyrgyz government has been loyal and accommodating to Russian interests, whereas occasionally the Tajiks do things that are not to Moscow's liking," says Eugene Chausovsky, Eurasia analyst at Stratfor.

Russia has been instrumental in establishing and shoring up the regimes in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Discontent over former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev's increasingly corrupt regime had been rumbling for some time, but the death knell for his rule came when he reneged on an agreement to throw the US out of Manas, an unofficial quid pro quo for the hundreds of millions of dollars in finance for hydropower projects he received from Moscow. Some of the leading Kyrgyz opposition figures are rumoured to have paid a visit to Moscow immediately before the revolution that ousted Bakiyev.

Back in the 1990s, Russian support was an important contributor to Rakhmon's victory over Tajikistan's Islamist opposition in the 1992-1997 civil war, and Russia's continuing military presence and financial support have helped Rakhmon maintain control against the twin threats of domestic opposition and insurgency from neighbouring Afghanistan.

After the failure to ratify the base deal, Dushanbe's stance was thrown back in its face by Russian nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. During a talk show on Russia-1 television channel, Zhirinovsky said that Tajikistan was demanding too much money to host the Russian military base and called for Tajik labour migrants to be sent home. "What will the head of the republic, Rakhmon, do then? He knows well that it would be the end for him," Zhirinovsky told viewers. "And maybe the Taliban would trample on Tajikistan and they would hang [Rakhmon] in the centre of Dushanbe, like they did [former Afghan president] Najibullah," Zhirinovsky warned.

While Russia's foreign ministry distanced itself from Zhirinovsky's comments, Russian officials have also put pressure on Tajikistan over the base issue. On April 16, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin took part in an official inspection of a Tajik train on the Dushanbe-Moscow route. Rogozin commented during the inspection that the trains were "unfit for transporting people", and followed this up later in the day saying that such trains should "never be allowed into Russia," because they pose "a serious threat to the sanitary health of the whole nation."

While the threat to bar Tajik Railways trains from Russia, making Tajik passengers switch to Russian trains at the Russian-Kazakh border, has not been officially linked to Dushanbe's delay in ratifying the base deal, it is a familiar tactic from Russia. In 2011, a Tajik court's sentencing of two ethnic Russian pilots for smuggling was swiftly followed by Russian threats to send home Tajik migrants. With remittance payments from migrant workers, mainly in Russia, making up around half of Tajikistan's GDP, Dushanbe swiftly caved in and released the pilots. There have been hints of similar tactics recently, with Russian officials proposing stricter passport requirements migrants.

Tensions ease

However, in recent weeks, the tensions seem to be easing. Although the base deal has not yet been ratified by the Tajik parliament, both countries have ratified a deal under which Russia will resume exports of duty free oil products to Tajikistan. After angry comments from Tajik officials accusing Russia of trying to grab the lucrative Dushanbe-Moscow rail route, a dialogue on the trains issue has also begun.

One of the factors pushing Tajikistan back into the Russian fold is the potential for further instability as a result of both the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Tajikistan's presidential elections, which are due to take place in November 2013. "The internal issue is definitely a big worry for Rakhmon," Chausovsky tells bne. "There have been signs he is really concerned over the opposition, especially the IRP [Islamic Revival Party], being a big challenge. That would play into Tajikistan relying more on Russia, or at least making sure relations with Russia are stable so that Russia is not a factor in providing instability to Tajikistan."

Tajikistan sees periodic militant uprisings, with the remnants of the United Tajik Opposition holding sway in parts of the country nearly two decades after their defeat in the civil war. On the long, porous border with Afghanistan, Tajik and Russian forces struggle to block both militants and drug traffickers. The government is also gearing up for a tussle with the opposition in November. Membership of the IRP, the only Islamist party represented in any parliament in the Commonwealth of Independent States, has increased rapidly, especially in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast - a region of Tajikistan on the Afghan border where there were clashes between militants and government forces in July-August 2012.

Because of this, and the lack of alternative protectors, Tajikistan already seems to be ending its brief show of defiance, at least for now. And the Russian agreements signed in autumn 2012 are likely to be followed by further penetration of both countries, not just militarily but in the economic sphere as well.


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