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Tajiks likely to grant Russia access to Ayni air base, says analyst

News analysis by Martin Sieff
Russia is likely to gain access soon to Tajikistan's Ayni military air base, says analyst

WASHINGTON, DC - Monday, February 14, 2011 - Russia looks to be beating out the United States and India to win the use of Tajikistan's Ayni air base.

Russia's defense minister held high-level talks with Tajikistan government officials in Dushanbe last week, and he was scheduled to tour the headquarters of the Russian military base in the country, the Tajik news service AsiaPlus reported.

Among the topics under discussion was the possible Russian use of the Ayni airfield, a source from the Tajik Ministry of Defense told AsiaPlus.

In fact, the real issue of the talks appears to be not "if" Russia would take over control of Ayni, but "when".

The Tajik government has already agreed in principle to let the Russians use the base, but are demanding joint use of the facility by Tajikistan’s own small air force. The Russians are insisting on sole use.

Ayni is well-placed for the Tajiks to use for air strikes against the Islamic rebels operating in the east of the country. It is located just west of Dushanbe and the main center of Islamic rebel activity is in the Rasht Valley 120 miles east of Dushanbe. That is only about 10 minutes' flying time for a modern combat jet.

Also, for reasons of national prestige, Rahmon cannot be seen as ceding full control of the base to a major foreign power. He was criticized for allowing China to take sovereignty of even a very small amount of Tajik land in a border dispute settlement last month.

But Rahmon wants the Russians on the base. Tajikistan is a member of the Russian-led, seven-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Russia sent thousands of combat troops to help Rahmon defeat eastern clans centered in the Rasht Valley in the country's 1992-97 civil war.

It was the bloodiest conflict in the modern history of Central Asia. Some 100,000 people out of a population of 7.5 million were killed. The defeated clans are now again the very forces being violent and restive under the influence of Islamist extremists.

In the past, Russia has been wary of reviving its military ties with the Tajiks. The Russians have been concentrating their forces in the Caucasus to fight Islamic extremists there and have forces in place in the event of further conflicts with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which is supported by the United States.

Therefore, they do not want to get sucked into what might become another full-scale civil war in eastern Tajikistan.

However, the Russians would like to have access to Ayni. It would be a prestigious coup for them. It would confirm their current rise in political and diplomatic clout across Central Asia. And it would be a useful step in their regional strategy of squeezing the United States out of Central Asia and Afghanistan.

The Russians won’t even have much work to do upgrading and modernizing Ayni. Their ally India already did that in cooperation with the Tajiks. The airfield now includes cutting-edge defense and navigational technology.

As we reported last year in Central Asia Newswire (CAN), the United States was cautiously beginning to court Tajikistan's authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon about the possible use of Ayni as a resupply base if the U.S. is forced out of its strategically vital Manas Air Base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. But prospects of that lessened in December when Rahmon was embarrassed by unflattering U.S. assessments of him and his government in U.S. State Department reports released in the WikiLeaks scandal.

India had been working for years with Tajikistan to upgrade Ayni and the Indians were confident they would be allowed to use it as their first real military and strategic foothold in Central Asia. They had already sent 150 military personnel there to carry out base improvements and prepare the way for it to be used for support missions on behalf of U.S. and allied forces operating in Afghanistan.

Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohan Zarifi, however, pulled the plug on that idea in early January. Less than a month later, on January 27, Zarifi announced he had opened talks with the Kremlin on letting the Russian Air Force use the base.

The United States is regarded by extreme Islamists as their greatest enemy and India is Hindu, and often at odds with Muslim Pakistan. Therefore, if President Rahmon allows either country to use Ayni, he risks giving the Islamic extremists a potent popular issue.

However, working with Russia does not run that risk. Russia is not fighting the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, unlike the United States and India. The Russians have fought two bloody wars against the Chechens over the past 16 years. But that is far away from Central Asia and it is seen as much more of a direct nationalist conflict.

Tajikistan, therefore, has much to gain, and little to lose by letting the Russians use Ayni.

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