#12 - JRL 7262
July 23, 2003
Moscow Considers Tajikistan Options
Russia's military presence in Tajikistan is necessary first and foremost to ensure Russia's national security. Indeed, it is too late for Russia to leave this potentially unstable region on her borders. The recent 10th anniversary of the heroic death of Russian border guards in Tajikistan in a gruesome seven-hour battle with Afghan mujahedin forces is just one more reminder of this fact.
12th Army Post
In that hot July night in 1993 a band of approximately 250 Afghan mujahedin forces attacked the 12th border post of the Moscow border detachment, which was guarding a section of the Tajik-Afghan border not far from the village of Sarigora.
The mujahedin prepared their attack well in advance by arranging 12 machine guns, 2 mortars, about 30 grenade launchers and 5 rocket launchers within striking distance of the post, and without being detecting by the Russian soldiers. Constant observation of the border troops by the mujahedin was also initiated. Before their attack, the mujahedin warned the residents of Sarigora of the upcoming battle. The mujahedin promised village residents security; nevertheless, a few hours before the battle started hundreds of villagers fled their homes. A local hunter who was in contact with the border post tried to warn the border guards but was hunted down and killed by the mujahedin. The mujahedin also mined the road from the village to the border post. All of these preparations went unnoticed by the Russian border guards.
The battle began about 4 a.m. The border post at that time (it has since been moved to a high point) was located in an area that was particularly difficult to defend. It was completely surrounded by higher peaks. During the ensuing battle mujahedin forces more or less surrounded the post. In spite of the uneasy situation on the border the post's armory was closed and stores of machine guns were used up, which made it very difficult for the border guards to defend themselves from the onslaught. Many border troops including the post's commanding officer, 25-year-old lieutenant Mikhail Mayborod died in the first minutes of the battle.
The men of the 12th army detachment waited for help, but it never came. The troops battled desperately as shown by the fact that six defenders were awarded the title Hero of Russia - privates Sergey Borin and Igor Filkin, sergeants Vladimir Yelizarov and Sergey Sushchenko posthumously. Sergeant Sergey Yevlanov and Lieutenant Andrey Merzlikin, who after Mayboroda's death took command of the division, were also awarded the title. The border guards lost 25 soldiers. Many were identified with difficulty because of serious wounds.
Service in the 12th army detachment cannot go by without remembering the men that fell that morning. Conditions are extremely difficult. Winter blizzards cut off the detachment from the outside world several days each year. Drinking water has to be brought in to the border post. The 12th border post remains one of the most difficult on the entire Tajik-Afghan border. Serving one year in Tajikistan they say is like serving three years elsewhere. Indeed, it is still too early to speak of calm on the southern border of the CIS.
Far from the homeland, on the distant border
At the present time the Russian military presence in Tajikistan is relatively large. Russian border guard units are made up of five border detachments, which control the Tajik-Afghan border over its entire length. Last year the Murgabsky border detachment transferred control to the Tajiks of a 500-kilometer section of the Tajik-Chinese border. Commander of the Border Administration of the Russian FSB in Tajikistan Alexander Markin said not long ago that agreement on the status of the border guards had expired. At the present time, however, Russia and Tajikistan are discussing a new version of the agreement.
Perhaps the main function of the border guards is to put a stop to narcotics traffic, especially heroin from Afghanistan, which is transported by the tens of kilograms. Nevertheless, the flood of heroin from Afghanistan continues to grow in spite of statements by the US that counter-terrorist operations in Afghanistan have been successfully concluded. 'Protect your children,' said Markin in regard to the increasing flow of heroin from Tajikistan. He also said the chief obstacle preventing the border guards from stopping more narcotics trafficking is Tajik soldiers who serve in the guards and have family members on both sides of the border. Local custom dictates that the Tajik soldier cannot refuse a family member who is carrying heroin crossing the border.
Russia also maintains the 201st motorized rifle division in Dushanbe, Kulyabe and Kurgan-Tyube. Its chief mission is to cover the 12th army detachment in the case of a breakthrough by rebels from Afghanistan. Moreover, during the civil war in Tajikistan the division played an important factor in deterrence. Today it also remains an important stabilizer to the regime of Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov.
Back in 1999 Russia and Tajikistan signed an agreement on the transformation of the division into the fourth Russian military base in Tajikistan. However, the division's Deputy Commander Alexander Rubtsov said that there has been 'disagreement' between the sides regarding the base. Moscow is not prepared to accept the proposal by Dushanbe about the possibility of transferring the property of the division into the hands of Tajikistan. Questions regarding land, structure and the size of the future base are also unresolved.
For the time being a re-organization has been conducted and as a result, according to Rubtsov, the size of the division has been reduced from 8,000 to 5,500 personnel. Artillery, tank, rocket and other sub-units have been restructured. Military staff evade questions of how much Russia will have to pay to rent the land where the base is located saying it is a question for politicians. Analysts give different numbers up to USD 10 million per year. The annual defense budget of Tajikistan is USD 1.5-2 million.
Russia is proposing the 'Armenia option': minimal rent and training of local military specialists including participation in joint maneuvers, military equipment and so on. Tajikistan wants a specific fee to be determined in hard currency. In addition, Tajikistan is attempting to tie the agreement with the presence of the Russian 'okno' space center at Nureka, although the missions of the space station and division are not connected in any way.
The Russian press has reported on several occasions that the part of the division that is located in the center of Dushanbe is moving to the outskirts of the city. In essence, the reports are true because the 201st division is concentrating in the region of Giprozem, where by 2005 all necessary buildings and facilities will be constructed. Russian servicemen are certain that the move will not adversely effect the administration and fighting capabilities of the division, a possibility which has concerned many in Moscow. Moreover, Dushanbe is a relatively small city where one can drive from one end to the other in 20 minutes.
When young Tajik soldiers are asked why they are serving in the Russian military, they answer that they like it very much. This is the typical answer of any resident of Tajikistan connected with the Russian military and able to speak Russian. The young generation of Tajiks has serious difficulties with comprehending Russian. For their part, Russians say the Tajiks are good soldiers - sturdy, efficient and hardworking.
The pay that the Tajiks receive here is a means for existence not only for themselves but also for their many relatives. 'People ask me who our Defense Minister is and I answer that I don't know, but in Russia he is Sergey Ivanov,' said one Tajik soldier. Russian commanders prohibit servicemen from venturing outside the compound in uniform alone. 'We've had some bad experiences,' say officers.
After the attack on the 12th army detachment, many in Russia began to ask themselves the question: 'Do we need to stay in Tajikistan?' But today the question is posed differently: 'Can Russia stay in this explosive region?' 'And what do we lose if we have to leave?' Russia's geopolitical competitor, which has unarguably large financial and military capabilities, will not simply hand over the region to Russia. 'The situation is changing and not in our favor - the US is already a real factor of strength in the region and could effectively replace Russia,' said political scientist Vitaly Khlyupin.
Indeed after Rakhmonov's visit to Washington last December, Tajik-US relations have been significantly strengthened. Rakhmonov said that Dushanbe will do everything it can in order to develop 'mutually advantageous cooperation with the US in many areas.' This also includes the US military presence in the region. Up until recently a group of approximately 100 French servicemen was located in Tajikistan, and also a small contingency of US security guards. Gray French transport planes stand at the Dushanbe airfield next to Russian airplanes and not far away are tents of foreign servicemen, which attest to the new foreign presence in the country.
Russian border guards are convinced that in any case Russians will keep watch at the Tajik-Afghan border. In spite of the fact that Tajikistan is forming its own security detachment to the rear of the Russians, Dushanbe has been open about the fact that for the time being it is not in a position to independently protect its state borders. Nevertheless, the thought that the US might engage in this activity seems ridiculous especially when considering the fact that at the beginning of the Iraq war when someone 'fastened legs' to US bio-toilets located in Tajikistan a group of US servicemen immediately left the country.
Talk about the forthcoming exit of the Russian 201st division crops up apprehensively and periodically. 'Removing the Russian 201st is impossible for a number of reasons,' says Khlyupin. 'It is the only real unit with fighting capacity, which demonstrates our flag and strength in the region,' he said. Military strength in Central Asia always projects political strength. The withdrawal of such a large united force would bring great losses and also lead to large economic losses as well. But the main thing is that we can't go back to the past because the infrastructure would certainly be taken over by the US as has already happened in the Kyrgyzia, Uzbekistan and Georgia. Moreover, Tajiks don't want the division to leave, especially Tajiks that support Rakhmonov. On the other hand, the US is offering Dushanbe a significant amount of money. Nevertheless, a series of agreements on the Russian base will be signed, although a great deal of time and effort will go into the base's construction.
The fact that the US is actively trying to 'drive out' the division says that it is a great obstacle to the US, says Khlyupin. Once more there is a point to having our servicemen here - to defend Russian economic interests in Tajikistan. However, besides the Chkalovsky uranium and Tursun-Zadevsky aluminum mines there seems to be little else of economic interest to Russia at the present time. However, we need to 'hold' the outskirts if for no other reason than to reliably pump gas from Turkmenistan. For the time being our tanks are only two hours away from Chardjoi. Therefore, Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, even if he were to go insane, would not seriously quarrel with Russia or the commanders of the division. However, it is another matter entirely that Moscow does not always have the necessary political will to clearly defend its interests in the region.
Member of the association of political experts and consultants Vladimir Goryunov is convinced that the Russian military presence in Tajikistan is extremely important for providing security for Russia for several reasons. First, Russian border guards form a wall that stands in the way of international narcotics trafficking. Second, Russian servicemen are the sole guarantee today of political stability on the banks of the Pyandzha River. Violating the political stability would inescapably lead to the liquidation of Tajikistan as a sovereign state and lead to new tension in one of the most fraught sections of the Russian border. This has nothing to do with imperial ambitions of the 19th century.
Russian border guards in Tajikistan understand better than anyone the geopolitical nature of their work, and understand their mission very well. 'Everyone knows the general line: we must be in Central Asia, and therefore we will be here,' says Markin confidently.
If there was only more of that high level of confidence among the Moscow politicians who determine Russia's policies in this key region of the world, the heroic deaths of the members of the 12th army detachment ten years ago would not be for nothing.
Yana Amelina, Rosbalt Translated by Richard Sleder