Russia extends Tajik base lease to curb militant threat
DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Russia extended its military presence in Tajikistan for 30 years on Friday in a deal to secure the southern fringes of its former Soviet empire after NATO troops leave Afghanistan.
The countries' defense ministers signed an agreement prolonging Russia's lease on a military base in the former Soviet republic until 2042 during a visit by President Vladimir Putin.
In return, Russia will admit more Tajik laborers to earn cash crucial to the Central Asian state's fragile economy.
Russia has chosen relatively loyal Tajikistan as its main line of defense against a new wave of radical Islamists spreading from Afghanistan, as well as drug trafficking.
Russia has less influence in Tajikistan's neighbors Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which also border Afghanistan.
More than 6,000 soldiers stationed across three towns in Tajikistan comprise Russia's Base 201, the Kremlin's biggest troop deployment abroad and a bulwark against any spillover of Islamist militancy into its post-Soviet hinterland.
"This base is needed by us, and is needed by Tajikistan," Putin's foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, said.
Ushakov said Russia would pay a symbolic sum to extend its lease, which had been due to expire after a decade on January 1, 2014, the same year NATO troops are due to leave Afghanistan. Russian soldiers and their families will receive diplomatic immunity.
Putin, a critic of many U.S. and NATO moves, has expressed regret at the drawdown and backed Russian cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan. His trip to Tajikistan follows visits to neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in September.
The Russian leader has sought to boost the Kremlin's presence in Central Asia, where the United States and China are also vying for influence, by providing political support to its authoritarian leaders and offering lucrative economic deals.
Russian military and economic support is particularly important to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon, whose government won a 1992-97 civil war with Moscow's backing against a loosely aligned opposition that included many Islamist militants.
In a joint statement, the two presidents said they considered "stopping the threat of terrorism and drug trafficking from the territory of Afghanistan as one of their priorities in efforts to maintain regional stability".
Rakhmon, a former head of a Soviet cotton farm, turned 60 on Friday, two days before Putin reaches the same milestone. Putin presented Rakhmon with a Russian-manufactured sniper rifle as a birthday gift.
In power for 20 years, the Tajik president will seek another seven-year term in a November 2013 election. Putin, Russia's paramount leader since 2000, began a new six-year term in May.
Chronic poverty, the growth of radical Islam and sporadic outbreaks of violence have undermined Rakhmon's rule in recent years and prompted state crackdowns on religious freedoms and independent media.
In July, Tajik troops attacked the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan, which covers about half the country's land mass, in pursuit of ex-warlords who were given government jobs as part of the Russia-brokered peace deal to end the civil war.
"It's important to Rakhmon to remain in power in 2013, and the Kremlin's support will be decisive," said Zafar Abdullayev, a Dushanbe-based political analyst.
Tajikistan, the poorest of 15 former Soviet republics, initially wanted Russia to pay full price for the lease extension on the base. Russia declined, saying Tajikistan needed Russian protection after the NATO pullout.
A high-ranking source in Tajikistan's government, who requested anonymity, said a package of deals had been prepared for signing by Putin and Rakhmon. These would include better terms for Tajik migrant workers in Russia, he said.
Ushakov, Putin's aide, said Moscow would allow more Tajik workers to earn a living in Russia. Around 1.1 million Tajiks, or a seventh of the country's population, reside in Russia and the wages they send home account for half the country's GDP.
A large presence of migrant workers in Russia, mainly young men who earn money for their families back home, benefits the Tajik government by providing jobs not available at home and reducing the core demographic for any anti-government protests.
Russia's population has fallen in the past two decades to about 143 million, according to official estimates, and migrant workers help fill gaps in the workforce.
Putin warned in February that the population could fall to 107 million by 2050 if nothing was done to reverse a decline that would hamper its economic development.
The Tajik government source said deals prepared for signing on Friday also included construction of a hydroelectric power station and the removal of import duties on Russian light oil products used in Tajikistan.
(Additional reporting by Roman Kozhevnikov; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Robin Paxton; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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