ALMATY (Reuters) - Russia plans to reduce troop numbers at its military base in Tajikistan, a Russian defense ministry spokesman said on Thursday, another move that suggests its political influence in the Central Asian country and wider region may be waning.
The surprise development comes less than two months after Russia pulled back a motor rifle regiment from an area close to the Afghan border, which it said it had wanted to reinforce, to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital.
The decision to cut troop numbers -- whether voluntary or not -- will be seen as a setback for Russia, which is facing increasingly tough competition from the United States and China for diplomatic supremacy in Central Asia, whose strategic location and natural resources make it a prize.
A Russia-based spokesman for the Central Military District said the Russian military group in Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic, would be scaled down to become a brigade rather than a division.
"In plain language, its headcount will decline slightly, but its mobility and ability to react quickly to any situations will improve," the spokesman said by phone, without providing any exact figures or a timeline for the move.
The move could point to tensions between Moscow and Dushanbe. There is little evidence of a public disagreement but Western diplomats and analysts say Imomali Rakhmon, the Tajik president, has long been uneasy about Russia's military presence.
Sharply lower remittances from Tajik workers in Russia due to the economic crisis there mean Dushanbe may feel less obliged to accommodate the Russian military, they say.
With up to 7,000 troops, the Russian military group in Tajikistan is Moscow biggest army base abroad.
In December, it withdrew one of its regiments from the city of Kulyab, located 42 kilometers from the Afghan border, to the capital Dushanbe, about 200 kilometers further away.
That also ran counter to previous statements.
Russia has said it wants to beef up, not weaken, its military presence in Tajikistan in order to guard against a possible overspill of Islamic extremists into the former Soviet Union. The two countries had announced a deal that would have eventually increased Russian troop strength to 9,000.
Tajik Foreign Minister Sirodjidin Aslov said on Thursday Russia remained Tajikistan's strategic partner and that Dushanbe supported Moscow's military operation in Syria, according to Tajik state news agency Khovar. He did not mention the troop reduction plans.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Jon Boyle)