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 base in the former Soviet republic until 2042 during a visit by President Vladimir Putin.
The lease had previously been due to expire on January 1, 2014, the same year most foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan, which shares a long, mountainous and porous border with Tajikistan.
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.
Addressing soldiers and officers at the base, Putin aired familiar complaints about NATO, saying Russia was concerned about expansion of infrastructure of the alliance, which now includes several former Soviet satellites.
"I believe (NATO) is to a large degree a throwback of the Cold War," Putin said. But he suggested the alliance could be a positive force as long as it does not try to usurp the power of the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has veto power.
"To some degree, under certain circumstances, if it acts on a mandate of U.N. Security Council, NATO can play a positive role," Putin said.
"We will develop our relationship with this organization."
Putin has been a harsh critic of NATO operations from the bombing of Serbia in 1999 to the air strikes that helped oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and has cast the United States as a meddler out to stamp its will on the world.
But he has backed cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan, allowing the use of Russian territory for transit and supplies.
The Kremlin has chosen relatively loyal Tajikistan as its main line of defense against a new wave of radical Islamists and narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan.
Putin also signed a deal last month to extend Russia's lease on an air base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan through 2032.
"Together with the base at Kant in Kyrgyzstan, the base in Tajikistan will serve the interests of Russia," Putin told the troops at Base 201.
Hundreds of spectators watched his motorcade sweep through the streets of Dushanbe to the base on the outskirts of the capital. Buildings were decorated with Tajik and Russian flags.
Putin 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.
His visit produced a package of agreements that could bolster Tajikistan's economy, including one providing better terms for Tajik migrant workers in Russia.
Around 1.1 million Tajiks, one-seventh of the country's population, reside in Russia and the wages they send home account for half the country's GDP.
Other deals pledged cooperation building hydropower facilities and removed import duties on Russian light oil products used in Tajikistan.
Putin's foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said Russia would pay a symbolic sum to extend the lease on the base.
Tajikistan, the poorest of 15 former Soviet republics, initially wanted Russia to pay full price but Russia declined, saying Tajikistan needed its protection after the NATO pullout.
"We need this base, and Tajikistan needs it," Ushakov said.
Russian military and economic support is particularly important to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon, whose rule has been undermined by chronic poverty, the growth of radical Islam and sporadic outbreaks of violence.
In a joint statement, Putin and Rakhmon 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, 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-made sniper rifle as a gift.
In power for 20 years, the Tajik president will seek another seven-year term in a November 2013 election.
"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.
(Additional reporting by Roman Kozhevnikov; Writing by Timothy Heritage, Robin Paxton and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Roche)
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