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Russia is going back to the Afghani border: Putin’s tour of Central Asia

Putin awards Rahmon with the order of Alexander Nevsky. Photo: nm.tj

On Feb 28, Russian President Vladimir Putin finished his tour of Central Asia. He has visited Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Officially, the visits were supposed to mark the 25th year of Russia’s diplomatic relations with those countries. The key topics were contacts in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union and security. One of the key results is that Russia will help Tajikistan to reinforce with border with Afghanistan.

Heart-to-heart with Nazarbayev

The Russians’ strategy to make it up with the Americans is giving no results yet, so, they have decided to recheck their eastern direction. Of the five Central Asian nations, only Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are Russia’s absolute allies.

With Turkmenistan, Russia has lots of contradictions. It has refused to import Turkmen gas, while Turkmenistan does not want to cooperate with Russia on its border with Afghanistan. Relations with Uzbekistan are in the stand-by mode, with new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev expected to visit Moscow shortly.

With Kazakhstan, Russia enjoys very close relations. So, the ski tour of Chimbulak might have well been enough for Putin and Nazarbayev to discuss all the problems existing between Russia and Kazakhstan. According to expert Dosym Satpayev, one of the Kremlin’s concern is re-distribution of power in Kazakhstan.

An order to Rahmon

With Tajikistan Russia has more problems though they are not very serious. The problems concerning the 201st Russian military base, the release of Russian pilots and the ban of air flights have been solved. Over 1,000,000 Tajiks are working in Russia. Russia’s military presence in Tajikistan is a guarantee of its security. So, the Tajik authorities cannot afford being at odds with the Kremlin.

Before the visit, the Tajik authorities had forgiven the Russia-owned Sangtuda-1 HPP its $1.6mn debt but in exchange asked to cut by as much the $83mn debt of Barqi Tojik to the company.

The Russians have promised to provide the Tajiks with $6.6mn for school canteens and $1.5mn for farmers supplying food to schools. They have also provided 600 quotas for Tajiks wishing to study in Russia.

During the visit, Putin presented Tajik President Emomali Rahmon with the Alexander Nevsky Order. His promise to amnesty the 270,000 deported Tajik Gastarbeiters made Rahmon more compliant. As a result, Putin and Rahmon agreed to intensify their joint efforts to protect the Tajik-Afghani border and to use the 201st Russian military base for this purpose.

The Kremlin wants the CIS southern border to be safe and Tajikistan and Central Asia to be free from extremists. For this purpose, the Russians are going to help the Tajiks to centralize their country, to oppress the Islamic opposition and to improve their economy. And they will be able to do this only if Tajikistan remains on the orbit of the Eurasian Economic Union. The Tajiks were expected to apply for EEU membership in late 2016, but they are still examining Kyrgyzstan’s experience.

If the Tajiks join the Union, they will get better conditions for their Gasterbeiters and will get access to the new markets, financial resources and investment projects. But if they refuse, their Gasterbeiters will face serious problems in Russia.

In Dushanbe, Putin also met with the potential successor of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, his son, Rustam Emomali, who was recently appointed as Mayor of Dushanbe.

Sidestepping issues with Atambayev

The Kremlin’s key concern in Kyrgyzstan is who will be elected the country’s new president and how much pro-Russian he will be. In Bishkek, Putin pointed out the contribution of Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev to the development of Kyrgyz-Russian relations. He did not repeat his earlier statement that Russia is going to withdraw from the Kant air base as soon as its rental term expires. The president sidestepped this issue. After the meeting, Putin said that the sides had not discussed the possibility of Russia’s enlarging its military presence in Kyrgyzstan but the Russians were ready to discuss it if the Kyrgyzs pleased. Later Putin said that Russia might close the Kant air base if Kyrgyzstan decided that it no longer needed it.

He added that Russia had never interfered and was not going to interfere in other countries’ internal political processes.

While Putin was in Bishkek, the local opposition was protesting against the arrest of opposition MP Omurbek Tekebayev. Expert Alexander Knyazev believes that Atambayev arrested Tekebayev on purpose. He wanted to show Putin that he was controlling the situation but without Putin’s support, he would not be able to do that for a long time. The presidential election in Kyrgyzstan is scheduled for Nov 19.

Atambayev reconfirmed his commitment to be Putin’s partner and promised to do his best to ensure fair and transparent elections. “We must become a normally developing country. Stop making revolutions. Take part in parliamentary and president elections,” Atambayev said. It seemed that he said that for Putin but Putin did not seem to care for that much.

EADaily’s Central Asian Bureau

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