Earlier this week RFE/RL’s Tajik service reported that a group of drunken, disrobed Russian soldiers got into a brawl with local Tajiks in Kulob. Russia has three military installations in Tajikistan–near Kulob, Qurghonteppa, and Dushanbe–all part of the 201st Motor Rifle Division. Between the three sites, Russia has 7,000 troops in Tajikistan and a 2012 agreement extends Russia’s base leases until 2042.
Foreign soldiers are not always the best guests. While the United States has by far the most military installations on foreign soil in the world, in Central Asia, Russia has a decidedly larger (and historic) military presence. In addition to the bases in Tajikistan, Russia occupies the Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan (which from 2001 to 2014 was the only country in the world to host both American and Russian military forces) and reportedly has additional facilities in the country. In 2013 a group of environmental activists in Kazakhstan demanded that the country close the Russian spaceport at Baikonur. Kazakhstan hosts a handful of other Russian military installations–including a Soviet-era radar station and a ballistic missile testing ground. An Indian airbase in Tajikistan has been rumored for years, but there’s never any real evidence to support the talk.
When the U.S. did have a military presence in the region–at the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan (later rebranded as a transit center)–there were a handful of incidents. These included the September 2006 kidnapping of Maj. Jill Metzger and the December 2006 shooting of a Kyrgyz man at one of the base’s entrances. In 2011, Kyrgyz police detained a U.S. citizen working at the base on “hooliganism” charges. A Kyrgyz woman alleged he had tried to force her to have sex for money and police claimed he was drunk when they arrested him. According to RFE/RL at the time, police notified the U.S. embassy but also said that employees of the base were covered by diplomatic immunity.
With regard to the recent ruckus caused by Russian soldiers in Tajikistan, Asia-Plus reports that an official source in the Tajik Ministry of Defense said Russian soldiers don’t enjoy “judicial impunity”:
“According to agreements reached between the two countries, servicemen of the Russian military base deployed in Tajikistan committing crime in Tajikistan fall under the jurisdiction of Tajikistan’s legislation and criminal proceedings are instituted against them by relevant Tajik bodies,” the source said.
“On completion of investigation the criminal case is handed over to the relevant bodies of the Russian side and they must to inform the Tajik side of the decision they made,” the source noted.
The Russian soldiers are being accused of hooliganism and from the RFE/RL report that sounds like exactly what happened:
Jamshed, a Kulob resident who witnessed the violence and asked that his last name not be published, said the fight broke out after seven drunken Russian soldiers who had stripped down to their underwear began dancing, singing, and “yelling loudly” in a residential area of the city center.
“Local men asked the soldiers to return to their base but the Russians didn’t listen and argued with them,” Jamshed said. “The scuffle broke out and several other soldiers came from the military base to help their comrades.”
To a degree, some of these incidents are entertaining to read about–a drunken brawl usually is whereas any incident resulting in a death is decided not. In some cases they serve to illustrate growing tensions between a foreign military and a host country–many of the incidents in Kyrgyzstan feed into that larger narrative–but they don’t always go that far.
Sometimes a brawl is just a brawl, and local communities across the world are often unhappy with a nearby foreign military presence, especially since most misbehaving soldiers are not subject to local justice. While the ministry source told Asia-Plus that Russian soldiers are subject to Tajik laws, the criminal case is apparently then handed over and Moscow, ultimately, decides. The source may say the soldiers don’t have immunity–but that’s essentially what they have. Abdulfattoh Shafiev, writing at GlobalVoices, says that “according to an interstate agreement, Russian soldiers stationed at the base cannot be prosecuted in Tajikistan for any crimes they commit, even those they commit outside the boundaries of the base.”