Tajikistan hands control over border airports to armed forces

Tajikistan hands control over border airports to armed forces
Tajikistan is eager to project its military strength amid recurrent border tensions. / Presidency, Tajikistan
By Eurasianet September 28, 2023

Tajikistan’s president has, in a move that some are reading as a response to recent bellicose remarks by the head of Kyrgyzstan’s security service, transferred control of almost all airports in near-border areas to the armed forces.

According to the terms of the decree obtained by local media on September 25, all airports bordering Afghanistan, with the exception of one in the city of Khorog, as well as those near Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, will now be managed by the defence ministry. The decree covers 18 facilities in total. 

The bulk of the airports has lain all but idle since the fall of the Soviet Union. Before then, flying was regarded as the most efficient way to reach far-flung corners of the mountainous Tajik republic. 

Now, many of the landing strips have been reduced to little more than grazing ground for cattle. And to get from cities in northern Tajikistan to the Pamirs in the east takes at least two days of tiring driving on shattered roads. This internal isolation means many refrain from bothering to travel across the country for conferences, work or personal reasons, unless strongly necessary.

RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Radio Ozodi, has reported that the government has instructed the defence ministry to refurbish the airports now under its control and to ensure that they are in working order. These instructions are not likely to be of practical use to the civilian population, however. 

Funds for the renovations are to be sourced from the fees that the army generates from young people prepared to pay to avoid having to perform mandatory military service. These fees – in essence, legalised bribes – came into effect as a result of a 2021 law. They allow men eligible for the two-year stretch of conscription to perform civilian duties instead of serving in the military. The fee was around 28,500 somoni ($2,600) when the law was introduced, but it has since been increased to 51,000 somoni. 

Proposed changes to airport infrastructure have raised many questions, most notably about which aircraft the defence ministry proposes to use at them.

One mooted option is to repurpose 17 military aircraft spirited out of the country by fleeing Afghan air force personnel in August 2021, just as the Taliban was seizing power in Kabul. The United States was reported last year to be in negotiations with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to which Afghan pilots also flew aircraft, on allowing them to retain the hijacked fleets for their own purposes. 

The timing of President Emomali Rahmon’s airport decree is striking. Tajikistan was earlier this month embroiled in something of a war of words with Kyrgyzstan.

On September 15, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s security services, Kamchybek Tashiyev, demanded in notably hostile remarks before journalists that Tajikistan relinquish its territorial claims to sections of the contested border between their two nations. He was speaking to reporters on the eve of the first anniversary of a border conflict that claimed dozens of lives.

“If our neighbour nation does not give up its territorial claims, then we will advance our own [claims]. We have both the strength and the ability to do this. We have the chance to reclaim lands handed over to Tajikistan dozens, or even hundreds, of years ago,” Tashiyev said.

Tajikistan’s foreign ministry responded to those remarks by summoning the Kyrgyz ambassador in Dushanbe. Meanwhile, regime-loyal commentators, who only publish views in strict conformity with the government line, penned articles decrying Tashiyev’s remarks as populism. 

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.