Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news website is reporting that Russian troops are pulling out of their base in the southern city of Kulyab in an unexpected and, so far, unexplained development.
The website based its report on November 18 on an official order from Russian military command obtained by local residents with ties to the base.
“We inform you that in connection with a [Russian Central Military District] directive, this military facility is being relocated as of October 15, 2015. The relocation will be completed within two months of receipt of this directive,” reads the summons, as reproduced by Asia-Plus.
No details are provided about where the garrison is to be relocated.
Kulyab is one of the three cities in Tajikistan where the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division is deployed — the others are Dushanbe and Kurgan-Tyube.
Russian troops numbers in the country are estimated to stand at around between 6,000 and 7,000.
The presence of the base in Kulyab provokes mixed feelings. While adding to the local economy, the military presence has also been at the root of much scandal in recent years.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in July on an incident of drunken Russian soldiers going on the rampage in Kulyab and getting into a mass brawl with some local men.
In an earlier incident in February, a Russian officer was charged with grievously assaulting a waiter in Kulyab, RFE/RL reported.
And although the base is a valuable economic input, even that aspect has on occasion fallen short of people’s expectations.
RFE/RL's Tajik service in April reported that that dozens of locals employed by the Kulyab base were protesting over nonpayment of wages.
Russian military officials have also found themselves having to fend off claims that soldiers were busy buying drugs off local dealers.
Whatever the significance of the redistribution of forces, it seems unlikely that the long-term Russian military engagement in Tajikistan will be diminished, particularly against the backdrop of escalating fear-mongering about the threat of militant Islamist incursions from Afghanistan.
On the contrary, Russia announced earlier this year that it plans to increase the number of its troops in Tajikistan to 9,000 by 2020.
Anecdotally, there are indications that Russian military presence in Tajikistan suffers from shortcomings not in quantity but quality. Equipment and facilities are typically poor and aging, morale and discipline are woeful, as evidenced by the numerous instances of reported misbehavior, and the quality of the troops available typically low-grade.
The mystery remains, for now, about where the soldiers will next be headed. (Asia-Plus tantalizingly suggests it will reveal more soon).
It would be surprising though if it were away from the Afghan border. Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube are both within a short distance of the troubled frontier, although the latter is much closer to the border crossing leading to the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, which was briefly captured by the Taliban earlier this year.
Then again, while numerous senior figures from former Soviet nations have warned of the peril of an insurgent spillover from Afghanistan, a Tajik military spokesman recently played down speculation that militants were massing at the border.