The core element of the Russian-Tajik strategic partnership and alliance is the coordination of joint activity in the international arena, both bilaterally and within global and regional organisations. Amid these conditions, the combined efforts of Tajikistan and Russia in ensuring the security of the southern borders of the CIS and the CSTO zone of responsibility is considered particularly relevant, writes Guzel Majtdinova, Professor of the Department of Foreign Regional Studies and Foreign Policy of the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, who participates in the second session of the Valdai Club’s Central Asian conference.
At the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, when the emerging polycentric world space has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the Central Asian states face the task of developing international rules which would allow them to take advantage of new challenges, which requires a modernisation of the regional security system. The Afghanistan issue and the ethno-political problems existing in the Fergana Valley are in the way of implementation of specific development projects in Tajikistan. At present, the main threats to the security of not only Tajikistan, but all of Central Asia and Russia are: the activities of international terrorist organisations in the Afghan border area; the spread of religious extremism; an increase in illegal drug trafficking; the threat of bioweapons being used; arms smuggling, human trafficking and the other activities of organised criminal groups; cybercrime, and other transnational crimes. Tajikistan periodically experiences the latent potential conflict in the Fergana Valley, where the delimitation and demarcation of interstate borders has not yet been completed.
New threats to regional security (biological, hybrid, network wars, environmental challenges) are pushing new states to reform the old security system, taking into account new realities, when more dynamic global processes are projected at the regional level with their local specifics. To preserve the stability of Central Asia, it is now of paramount importance to strengthen the security belt in the Amu Darya Transboundary basin, and resolve the problems of borders and enclaves in the Fergana Valley, where conflicts between the population living in Vorukh, Sokh, Shakhimardan are more and more frequent.
These dangers have prompted Tajikistan to pay priority attention to issues of national and regional security, as well as counter challenges and threats, such as international terrorism, religious extremism and drug trafficking. Tajikistan has established a solid international legal basis for interaction in the fight against international terrorism and extremism by signing more than 80 interstate agreements with Russia, China, the states of Central Eurasia, the United States, European states, international organisations, etc.
The core element of the Russian-Tajik strategic partnership and alliance is the coordination of joint activity in the international arena, both bilaterally and within global and regional organisations such as the UN, CIS, CSTO, SCO, OSCE, CICA, etc. The deterioration of the military-political situation in Afghanistan has impeded the implementation of the national development strategy of Tajikistan and threatens the national security of the country. Amid these conditions, the combined efforts of Tajikistan and Russia in ensuring the security of the southern borders of the CIS and the CSTO zone of responsibility is considered particularly relevant.
The Tajik-Afghan border is the southern border of the CSTO’s (and therefore Russia’s) common area of responsibility. The most tense situation remains in the north-eastern provinces of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan due to the expansion of combat zones by militants from various terrorist and jihadist groups. The reason for the concentration of terrorists in the north of Afghanistan is most likely the redistribution of spheres of influence for drug trafficking; criminal organised groups have introduced human trafficking, and the trend of exporting radicalism is increasing. Under these circumstances, the fight against drug trafficking remains among the main tasks of Tajikistan and Russia regarding Afghanistan. This has prompted the leaders of Tajikistan and Russia to take initiative in the formation of a multilateral regime to counter the threats from Afghanistan. In the context of the aggravation of the Afghan problem, not only the power and security structures of Tajikistan play an important role in containing external destructive forces, but also the 201st Russian military base, as well as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, of which Tajikistan and Russia are members. In order to improve the reliability of border protection in the airspace, Tajikistan and Russia have agreed to create a joint air defence system. According to the agreement between Russia and Tajikistan, the coordination of the joint activity of the troops of the United Regional Air Defence System of Russia and Tajikistan will be carried out by the commander-in-chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces, and the command of the Air Force and air defence of the Armed Forces of Tajikistan.
Taking into account the threat of drug traffic across the Tajik-Afghan border, Russia regularly provides assistance to Tajikistan in the fight against drugs. For 2018–2020, $5.4 million was allocated to updating the material and technical supplies of the local Drug Control Agency. Military and military-technical cooperation is a priority area of Russian-Tajik interaction. In total, since 2014, Russia has trained more than 7,000 Tajik military personnel, which significantly affects the increase in the combat readiness of the armed forces of the Republic of Tajikistan. In 2021, the training of the next group of military personnel has already begun. Every year up to one thousand military specialists are trained for the Ministry of Defence of Tajikistan by the Russian trainers, including engineers, scouts, drivers of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, and artillerymen. There are plans to train 140 armoured crewmen and 70 mortar gunners at the Lyaur training ground.
About 500-1000 Tajik servicemen undergo training in Russia annually, free of charge. In 2020 alone, about 1,000 junior specialists for the Ministry of Defence of Tajikistan were trained in Russia. Despite the pandemic, specialised Russian universities have continued to train young servicemen for the Ministry of Defence of Tajikistan, the State Committee for National Security, and its Border Troops. Meanwhile, taking into account the possible increase in the military threat from Afghanistan, in 2019 a drone aviation battalion was formed as part of the 201st Russian military base and equipped with Forpost UAVs. At the end of the same year, the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan received the newest Pole-21 electronic warfare system. In October 2020, the rearmament of the air group of the 201st military base in Tajikistan was completed with modern modifications of the Mi-8MTV5-1 transport and combat helicopters.
In February 2021 alone, Russia donated over 40 units of engineering equipment and special equipment to the armed forces of the Republic of Tajikistan. In addition, Russia and Tajikistan are conducting joint military exercises. “Combat Brotherhood” manoeuvres are regularly held near the Tajik-Afghan border. They are attended by thousands of CSTO troops, aircraft and Iskander missile systems. Tajikistan successfully completed large-scale exercises with Collective Rapid Reaction Force of the CSTO member countries.
Meanwhile, finding a solution to the controversial Tajik-Kyrgyz border problems has remained rather difficult. So far, only 519 kilometres of the 970-kilometre Tajik-Kyrgyz border line have been demarcated, and the remaining border area is considered disputed. In these areas, incidents have periodically occurred between the two countries; on April 29, 2021, a conflict took place near the village of Khojai-Alo at the Golovnaya irrigation facility — a water distribution station in the Isfara river basin, which turned into an armed confrontation between the two states. During the first interstate one-day “water war” in Central Asia, dozens were killed and hundreds of people were injured on both sides. The fighting spread to other sections of the border. The authorities of the two countries were eventually able to stabilise the situation. On April 30, 2021, a meeting of government delegations was held on the delimitation and demarcation of the border. The parties agreed on a ceasefire and the withdrawal of the armed forces from the border, on the preservation of the territories that they owned before the conflict, as well as on the delimitation of 112 kilometres of the international border. However, two weeks later, another conflict arose. The Tajik-Kyrgyz military border conflict was the bloodiest in post-Soviet Central Asia in three decades. Currently, the Tajik-Kyrgyz topographic working groups have begun to carry out topographic works on the 112 km-line of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. The potential for conflict on the border due to control over water sources has not yet been exhausted, since the fate of the most difficult, disputed 233 km is still an open question. Currently, it is necessary to take preventive measures to counteract potential conflicts, given the fact that Tajiks and Kyrgyz have practically no reasons for irreconcilable hostility on religious or ethnic grounds. The military conflict at the end of April on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border caused alarm among leading world actors with vested interests in Central Asia, and this problem was also the subject of discussion within the UN, CSTO, SCO, OSCE, etc. There is a general understanding that the escalation of the conflict could lead to another hot spot on the world map. It is more and more obvious that the principle of indivisible security should exist in Central Asia as a key condition for maintaining regional stability. In the event of an escalation of border problems, the CSTO is the organisation responsible for maintaining stability in the area, given that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are both members. The CSTO can perform as a guarantor of the implementation of the bilateral Tajik-Kyrgyz agreements on border issues. The accelerated pragmatic solution of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border problems is of paramount importance, given that a military threat is growing across the southern border of the CSTO zone.
Now the CSTO is pursuing a more formidable approach towards Afghanistan, since the organisation is the only supranational organisation to ensure the sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity of its Eurasian member states. The military component of the CSTO is being strengthened, which includes the Collective Rapid Reaction Force and the Peacekeeping Forces, formed on a coalition basis, as well as regional units of collective security forces, including the Rapid Reaction Corps. Interaction between special units of the CSTO is being actively developed in order to suppress IT-related crimes. The CSTO is taking measures to counter the challenges and threats emanating from the territory of Afghanistan, which provide for practical measures to form “belts” of anti-drug and financial security around the country. A dialogue platform has been created for the exchange of views on regional security issues between the EAEU, CSTO, CIS and SCO, which allows for the coordination of efforts between regional organisations in order to maintain the stability of the Eurasian states.
Cyberwars are already a factor in modern geopolitics. This geopolitical factor forms the public consciousness; it is a whole system of information and ideological measures to influence the political elite, the psyche and behavior of citizens of the country, as well as measures to counter these influences, using political, economic, diplomatic, scientific means, the media, and cinema to influence the information environment of the opponent and protect the national interests of the Central Asian states. In these states, including in Tajikistan, there is insufficient systematic training of specialists in the field of information and ideological security, including professionals in the field of propaganda and counter-propaganda.
Taking into account these circumstances, the training of specialists in information and the ideological sphere is of paramount importance for Tajikistan. In this context, it would be important to strengthen Tajik-Russian cooperation.
Another urgent problem of regional security is associated with the risks of the proliferation of biological weapons. Formally, the Convention on the Prohibition of Biological and Toxic Weapons, which the United States and the USSR joined, was adopted back in 1972. However, its implementation is hampered in practice by the lack of verification mechanisms. In 2001, Russia proposed such a mechanism, offering an appropriate protocol to other countries. But the United States withdrew from the negotiations and began to form a closed system of military biological laboratory sites around the world. A tendency has emerged to launch biological labs in post-Soviet Central Asia to carry out prohibited military biological research.
The implementation of such plans will make it possible for the US to carry out in-depth studies to obtain pathogenic microorganisms capable of possibly acting on various ethnic groups of people. This opens up prospects for the creation of biologically damaging agents on the basis of genetically modified forms of pathogenic microorganisms exported from the CIS, to which the population will not have natural immunity, and the available means of medical protection will be ineffective. For example, after the appearance of the US biological laboratory in the city of Herat, an outbreak of malaria was recorded in Afghanistan.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that uncontrolled biological processes can significantly slow down or completely destroy the development plans of the countries of the Central Asian region and the world as a whole. Given these conditions, the Central Asian states, together with Russia, need to take measures to declare the region free of biological weapons facilities. To ensure the environmental safety of the region, it is necessary to combine efforts to develop and implement a single regional environmental policy.
On December 17, 2020, as part of a new UNDP initiative “Accelerating Post COVID-19 Economic Recovery through Improved Livelihood, Employability, and Regional Cooperation in the Ferghana Valley”, Russia allocated $2 million to Tajikistan for the implementation of the project. The project aims to improve living conditions and methods of doing business in the Fergana Valley of Tajikistan in 2021-2023, including the increase of cross-border cooperation with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
In order to promote the development of the economy and social sphere of Tajikistan, Russia is consistently improving the Concept of Assistance to International Development and annually sends humanitarian aid to Tajikistan through Russian agencies. In terms of the total volume of humanitarian aid to Tajikistan, Russia is one of the three largest international donors. Thanks to the financial support of the Russian Federation, the World Food Programme is currently implementing its largest project in Tajikistan — the School Feeding Programme, which currently reaches 500,000 primary school students in 2,000 schools in 52 districts and cities throughout the republic. In total, Russia has allocated more than $ 58 million through the World Food Programme to support the school feeding system in Tajikistan since 2013. The implementation of the National School Feeding Strategy 2017-2027 continues, and starting from 2021, the management of the School Feeding Programme will gradually be transferred to the responsible authorities of Tajikistan.
The Eurasian Development Bank, with the active participation of Russia, provided Dushanbe with $50 million as a concessional loan to stabilise the socio-economic situation during the pandemic.
An important component of Tajik-Russian interaction is cooperation in the field of migration. This helps Tajikistan to solve complex socio-economic problems and contributes to social stability, so that locals may receive the necessary foreign exchange earnings, and Russia makes up for the lack of labour resources. Support for Tajik migrants in the context of the Covid pandemic was important. In accordance with the decree made by the President of the Russian Federation on temporary measures to regulate the legal status of foreign citizens and stateless persons in the Russian Federation in connection with the spread of COVID-19, migrants from foreign countries, including Tajikistan, got the extended permits to stay in the Russian Federation until September 15, as well a number of social guarantees, including the provision of free emergency treatment and urgent medical care.
In the current situation in Central Asia, the most important and urgent factor affecting regional security is the strengthening of integration processes. Only this factor can ensure the stability of the security system. The main integration processes in the region are geo-economic, geopolitical and communications-related. Currently, there are favourable opportunities in Central Asia for close economic cooperation and a coordinated, common foreign policy and foreign economic strategy. For the implementation of national development strategies of the states of the region, another integration initiative is important — the meridional integration of the states of Central Eurasia (from Siberia to the Indian Ocean). There are also subjective reasons for promoting integration initiatives. The increased interest of external actors in Central Asia causes new formats of interaction. In particular, we are witnessing an increased interest in the 5+1 format from many interested external forces, for example, C5+1 with the United States, 5+1 with China; in 2020 the C5+Russia format was formed. There is the development of a common EU Strategy in Central Asia. Moreover, other countries have begun to have consultations — “India + Central Asia”, “Japan plus Central Asia”, “South Korea plus the countries of Central Asia”. However, in the context of increasing strategic competition among external actors in Central Asia, it would be important to create another interaction format in the region — C6 (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan) + Russia + China + USA to coordinate the actions of external actors. This is a kind of a channel for the interaction between centres of power in the region, and hence to reduce regional tension due to the strategic rivalry of external actors.