denials, reports that Delhi wants an outpost in Central Asia continue to 
surface.  By Rukhshona Alieva in Dushanbe

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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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 India’s 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 Tajikistan’s 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 paper’s 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 
Dushanbe’s 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.”

Delhi’s interest in Tajikistan dates back to the Central Asian state’s 
emergence from the ruins of the Soviet Union in 2001, and is connected in part 
with India’s 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 Pakistan’s sphere of influence would extend right up to the 
[Afghan] border with Tajikistan,” Tajik political analyst Parviz Mullojanov 
told IWPR.

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 Moscow’s 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 Delhi’s 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 
another matter. 

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. Moscow’s 
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.


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 
Tajikistan’s 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 
doesn’t 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 it’s 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 people’s 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,” 
he said.

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 they’re citizens of 
Tajikistan, but because that’s 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.

“We’re 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 
people’s 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 don’t plan 
on changing it. All we can do is come to an arrangement with our neighbour that 
if he doesn’t want to help us, then at least he shouldn’t obstruct us.”

Saido Nazarov and Tahmina Ubaidulloeva are IWPR contributors in Tajikistan.

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