WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 504, August 7, 2007
IS TAJIKISTAN PLANNING TO PLAY HOST TO INDIAS MILITARY? Despite repeated
denials, reports that Delhi wants an outpost in Central Asia continue to
surface. By Rukhshona Alieva in Dushanbe
TAJIK TRAVELLERS HAVE A TOUGH TIME IN UZBEKISTAN Tajikistan is effectively
blocked in by its bigger neighbour, and Uzbek officials make life difficult for
anyone trying to cross their territory. By Saido Nazarov and Tahmina
Ubaidulloeva in Tajikistan
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IS TAJIKISTAN PLANNING TO PLAY HOST TO INDIAS MILITARY?
Despite repeated denials, reports that Delhi wants an outpost in Central Asia
continue to surface.
By Rukhshona Alieva in Dushanbe
Persistent rumours that India is seeking a military foothold in Tajikistan
refuse to go away despite attempts by officials to dismiss the story. Whether
or not negotiations have taken place, analysts interviewed by IWPR believe the
Tajik government will not allow gree for fear of upsetting powerful regional
Once a backwater of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan emerged as a key strategic
location in late 2001, when the French air force was allowed to station some
planes there to support the United States-led operation in neighbouring
The reports centre on Indias role in refurbishing the Aini airstrip, a long
disused military facility some 15 kilometres southwest of Dushanbe. The site
was abandoned in 1985 as the Soviet military wound up its ill-fated occupation
of Afghanistan. The Indians began repairing the airstrip and building new
hangars in 2002, and the site is now said to be ready for use.
The big question is who will get to use it. As well as Tajikistans major
partner Russia, there has been talk of Indian or French air forces stationing
planes at the base.
The long-running story that Delhi had designs on the airfield was revitalised
by a July 17 report in the Times of India saying that an Indian air force
squadron of multipurpose military helicopters plus a number of training planes
would be located at Aini.
According to the papers unnamed defence sources, this could happen by the end
of the year, and it would only be the start ultimately, India would seek to
station its Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets at the base. "It may be just a
military outpost at the moment but will develop into a full-fledged base in the
future," said the source.
The source said India was seeking a larger strategic imprint in Central Asia
for political and economic reasons. Such a presence would allow it to keep an
eye on long-term rival Pakistan as well as on Afghanistan, a country where the
competition between Islamabad and Delhi has often been played out. The Times of
India story even suggested that the base could be used as a launch-pad for
Indian special forces operations.
The paper pointed out that the defence ministry in Delhi was denying any plans
to establish a military base at Aini. This was reiterated officials in
Tajik foreign minister Hamrokhon Zarifi responded a day after the Times of
India report came out. India is indeed helping to reconstruct the Aini
aerodrome, but that does not mean that it is opening a military base, he said
at a press conference on July 18. No one is holding talks on opening the base.
Major-General Maruf Hasanov, head of the international relations at the Tajik
defence ministry, pointed out that the two governments had not even signed a
treaty on defence cooperation, and that the 2002 agreement on the refurbishment
of the Aini base made no provision for its subsequent use by the Indian
Although the defence ministry insists no talks have taken place, let decisions
made, an IWPR source in the ministry said discussions were taking place with
the regard to setting up a training centre at Aini, where Indian pilots would
teach their Tajik colleagues.
Two days later, Tajik government officials had to deal with another report,
this time that French and Russian combat planes currently stationed at
Dushanbes civilian airport were to redeploy to Aini.
Russia, the key superpower in Central Asia, currently has four Sukhoi-29
fighters and two transport helicopters at the airport as part of a substantial
military presence in Tajikistan that has continued since Soviet times.
The French presence consists of three Mirage 2000s and three of the latest
Rafale fighters, as well as two military transports. Although they are part of
the NATO mission operating in Afghanistan, their presence has not been
particularly controversial, as the French are not viewed as having the same
kind of regional ambitions as the Americans.
Speaking on July 20, Firuz Hamroev, the deputy director of Tajik Air, the
national civilian airline, said the planes were to be moved because they were
blocking the tarmac at Dushanbe airport.
The Tajik defence ministry issued a strong rebuff on July 27, saying,
Recently, there have been frequent reports in the media that Russia, Indian
and French air units are to be stationed at the Hissar [Aini] airfield. At
present, the question of any foreign force using the airfield is not being
discussed at all.
Delhis interest in Tajikistan dates back to the Central Asian states
emergence from the ruins of the Soviet Union in 2001, and is connected in part
with Indias historical support for political factions in northern Afghanistan,
as a counter to the southern Pashtun areas which have a closer connection with
Pakistan, geographically and otherwise.
India is worried that if Afghanistan falls into the hands of the pro-Pakistani
Taleban, then Pakistans sphere of influence would extend right up to the
[Afghan] border with Tajikistan, Tajik political analyst Parviz Mullojanov
Mullojanov said the very fact that the Aini story has resurfaced in the media
time and again suggests that the Tajik and Indian authorities have indeed been
holding talks for some years now. In 2005, the then Russian defence minister
Sergei Ivanov was reported as saying Moscow and Dushanbe were discussing shared
use of Aini with India.
Analyst Asliddin Jumaev says such an arrangement would in any case be
impossible without Moscows consent. If India is able to use the military base
at Aini, it will only be in conjunction with Russia, he said.
However, the consensus among the Tajikistan-based analysts interviewed by IWPR
was that Delhis plan to create a Central Asian outpost would be blocked by
Moscow. Delhi and Moscow have historically been on good terms, but inviting the
Indians into an area that Russia views as its own sphere of influence would be
According to Mullojanov, Russia would not welcome an outsider setting up shop
in the region.
Asliddin Jumaev, an independent analyst, added that the arrangement would need
to be approved by the two regional security groupings of which Tajikistan is a
member, the Collective Security Treaty organisation consisting of several
former Soviet states, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, SCO, which
brings together Russia, China and four Central Asian republics. Moscows
influence figures large in both structures.
In addition, the Tajiks also have to reckon with the interests of Pakistan,
their next-door neighbour but one.
Both Islamabad and Delhi are interested in investing in Tajikistan, most of all
in the copious hydroelectricity this mountainous country is capable of
generating, and of which they are both in need.
Mullojanov believes this gives the Pakistanis considerable influence. As a
potential investor in various major projects, Pakistan could obstruct the
progress of agreements on the military base, he said.
Another external power, the United States, has the use of a military airbase in
Analysts also noted that the United States, whose financial support is
important to Tajikistan, might not be happy to see the a shift in the broader
regional power-balance caused by the emergence of an Indian presence north of
the Khyber Pass.
Rukhshona Alieva is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.
TAJIK TRAVELLERS HAVE A TOUGH TIME IN UZBEKISTAN
Tajikistan is effectively blocked in by its bigger neighbour, and Uzbek
officials make life difficult for anyone trying to cross their territory.
By Saido Nazarov and Tahmina Ubaidulloeva in Tajikistan
Tajiks travelling through neighbouring Uzbekistan complain that they are being
harassed by officials who they say carry out excessive checks and demand bribes
to let them pass.
Passengers on trains going through Uzbekistan say their journey is delayed by
searches, while businessmen travelling by road also complain that have to bribe
officials to let them and their freight pass even when they have all the right
Although there are increasing attempts to open up routes to Afghanistan to the
south and China to the east, and there is also a highway to Kyrgyzstan, most of
Tajikistans imports and exports come overland by through Uzbekistan.
Hundreds of thousands of Tajik nationals work as seasonal migrants in Russia
and increasingly also Kazakstan, and the prohibitive cost of air travel means
many opt to go by road or rail, again through Uzbekistan.
At an official level, the issue of train delays is raised repeatedly at
regional meetings. Tajik railway bosses says unauthorised searches of trains
passing through Uzbekistan are to blame for 94 per cent of late arrivals.
But while representatives of Uzbekistan Railways have reportedly promised to
improve the situation, this has had little effect so far.
Time and time again, our employees have to explain the reason for the delay to
people who are waiting, said the deputy head of Tajikistan Railways, Vladimir
Sobakov, at a press conference in Dushanbe on July 16, while reporting on
progress made since January.
We have informed the [Tajik] foreign ministry of the situation, and it has
requested an explanation from the Uzbek authorities, but there has been no
positive solution, he said.
A source in the Uzbek government denied allegations that trains are held up
without good reason in Uzbekistan, or that Tajik traders have to pay bribes to
get their freight through.
Daler Nasimov, a resident of the Panj district in southern Tajikistan, tells a
different story. He recently went to meet his father who had travelled to the
capital Dushanbe from Moscow by rail, but the train was badly delayed, and
railway staff were unable even to give an estimated time of arrival.
When my father arrived, he told me the reason the train was delayed was that
there had been a full check on Uzbek territory, said Nasimov.
Rigorous searches on Tajik citizens crossing through Uzbekistan are not just
confined to those going by train. Many business people also report being held
up as over-zealous Uzbek officials search their cargo and demand bribes to let
their trucks pass.
The difficulty of importing goods via Uzbekistan has forced traders to raise
their prices, hitting consumers in the pocket.
Tajik businessmen try if possible not to have any dealings with Uzbek customs
officers and border guards, who operate unfair systems for checking cargo and
scrutinising waybills and other documentation, said Matluba Uljabaeva, who
chairs the National Association of Small and Medium-Sized Business in
Tajikistan. All this consumes a lot of time and energy, and makes people
reluctant to engage in business.
One 36-year-old entrepreneur from Khujand, the administrative centre of the
Soghd region in northern Tajikistan, said he has encountered major difficulties
when transporting goods by truck, especially when the goods have come from
Russia or Kazakstan.
Uzbek police stop us for various reasons so that they can get their cut, even
though we have all the necessary documents, said the man. We get stopped on
various pretexts, and it is taxing on our time and our nerves. They [Uzbek
police] tell us, this is our territory and we have our own laws.
This trader, who imports cement and crops, said he now makes fewer journeys
because of the recurring problems in Uzbekistan, where he has to go through
between five and ten police checkpoints.
We have to pay them a cut to avoid losing time. Sometimes, there are cases
when we are detained on purpose so that our visas expire, and then they demand
more money from us, he said.
The bribe exacted by Uzbek officials varies, and those who demonstrate an
awareness of their rights are less likely to be harassed.
They look at the individual, and if he does not have much experience and
doesnt know his rights, then they will take as much as they can, said the
Many traders are now using alternative modes of transport to bring goods
through the country, he said.
There have been times when he has wanted to quit altogether, but he has always
come back to his import business for fear that he would not find another job.
Some of my acquaintances have started importing goods by train, but this is
much more expensive, although its a lot less nerve-racking, he added.
According to Uljabaeva, some businessmen now import their goods by plane
despite the added costs this means for their customers.
Mahmadali Shokirov, head of the Association of International Trucking Companies
of Tajikistan has also experienced problems with obstructive officials when
travelling through Uzbekistan.
He says arguing with Uzbek officers does no good, and when he has tried to
prove he has the right to travel in their country, he comes up against a wall
of indifference from officials at various levels.
Threats and curses have no effect on these gentlemen. It only makes your
situation worse, he told IWPR.
He said he hoped a solution would be found to a problem that is beyond our
power to solve, and added that he could see no reason why Tajiks or Uzbeks
should have their travel restricted. We place our hopes in peoples common
sense of people - if they wanted to, they could allow people living on either
side to feel like they are free citizens, he said.
Ismail Ibrahimov, an independent commentator in Uzbekistan, confirmed that
there is a problem with extortion by local officials.
It is true that many Tajik nationals, especially those who transport large
amounts of freight through Uzbekistan, are forced to make excessive payments,
But Ibrahim argued that Tajiks were not being singled out everyone in
Uzbekistan is seen as a target by corrupt officials.
They are subjected to this appalling treatment not because theyre citizens of
Tajikistan, but because thats just the way Uzbek customs officers and police
are. They extort payments from our own [Uzbek] citizens, too, he said.
He noted that Uzbek nationals, too, complain of poor treatment from officials
when they go to Tajikistan.
Were aware of some cases where Uzbekistan nationals have been treated
inhumanely while visiting relatives in Tajikistan. They get arrested, beaten up
and forced to admit they are spying, he said.
The visa system in place between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for the last seven
years, adds to the problems facing nationals of the two states. Many Tajiks
complain that the application process is deliberately prolonged.
However, Tajik foreign minister Hamrokhon Zarifi said at a press-conference in
Dushanbe on July 18 that "some progress" has been made on simplifying visa
"While it used to take 20 days to issue a visa, we have now practically agreed
that a visa can be received in one day."
Tashpulat Yoldashev, a political scientist in Uzbekistan, said bureaucratic
problems and unfair treatment at a day-to-day level can be traced back to the
often difficult relationship between the two countries, and not least the
tensions between Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov and Uzbek leader Islam
The personal animosity between the two men, he said, had filtered down to the
citizens of the two countries.
Professor Shokirjon Hakimov, head of the faculty of law and international
relations at Tajikistan International University, said that it was crucial to
improve relations between the two governments if corruption and red tape on the
ground were to be tackled.
Only an improvement in our mutual relations can lead to an improvement in
peoples living standards, economic growth and greater investment, a solution
to social problems and a reduction in corruption in the border regions of the
two countries, he said.
By contrast, Uljabaeva believes the best option is for Tajikistan to develop a
road network that bypasses its problematic neighbour altogether.
A trade route running from Khorog in the Badakhshan region of southeastern
Tajikistan to the city of Kashgar in western China opened in 2004, and has
already boosted trade between the two states. However, climatic conditions are
so tough at the border checkpoint, which sits at an altitude of 4,400 metres,
that the route only stays open 15 days out of every month, and is closed
altogether from November through April.
It is gratifying that our leadership recognises the difficult relationship
with our neighbour [Uzbekistan], and is working actively to get the country out
of this geographical deadlock, said Uljabaeva.
She is philosophical on the future of Tajik-Uzbek relations.
They say that before you buy a house, you should choose your neighbours, she
said. We acquired our homeland Tajikistan a long time ago, and we dont plan
on changing it. All we can do is come to an arrangement with our neighbour that
if he doesnt want to help us, then at least he shouldnt obstruct us.
Saido Nazarov and Tahmina Ubaidulloeva are IWPR contributors in Tajikistan.
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