Mon, 06 Mar 2000

Afghan war may boost Russia in C. Asia

By Mike Collett-White

ALMATY (Reuters): Russia may exploit security concerns across Central Asia caused by renewed fighting in Afghanistan to regain its lost influence over the strategic region, political analysts said last Friday.

The vast region comprising five newly-independent states was once called the soft underbelly of the Soviet empire. After nine years of independence from Moscow, marked by economic and military decline, the description still holds.

"I think the Afghan problem puts Russia in a very strong position in Central Asia," said a senior Western analyst.

Seven months of relative calm in Afghanistan ended last week as clashes between the ruling Taleban militia and opposition forces resumed, coming to within a few miles of the border with ex-Soviet Tajikistan.

Russia's Acting President Vladimir Putin promptly spoke to Tajik leader Imomali Rakhmonov by telephone last Thursday, and a day later the 11,000 Russian border guards posted along the mountainous frontier announced they had tightened security.

Putin's spectacular rise to power appears to have given new impetus to Russia's bid to win back clout in Central Asia.

Russia's military campaign against what Putin calls "international terrorism" rooted in Islamic fundamentalism in the breakaway region of Chechnya has given him a common language with regional leaders who share his fears.

"The heads of Tajikistan and Russia agree that the worsening situation in Afghanistan poses a danger to stability not only in Central Asia but also in the rest of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)," Rakhmonov's spokesman Zafar Saidov said.

Andrei Grozin of the Moscow-based Institute for Integration and Diaspora said Russia was steering its efforts increasingly towards the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan.

"The Kremlin's thinking appears to be that it needs to orientate itself more to hardline governments like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan," he said, referring to the strict leadership style adopted by former Communist bosses in both states.

He added that this would serve the twin aim of battling the "Islamisation" of the nominally Muslim region and helping stem the flood of opium from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe.

What Putin can do to strengthen Russia's position in the region is unclear, given the limited resources at his disposal.

But analysts said small-scale cooperation could be used as a basis for a broader military presence, and with it influence over an area where the United States, eying the Caspian's huge oil and gas reserves, has tried to make inroads since 1991.

Apart from border guards, Russia has around 9,000 peacekeepers deployed in Tajikistan, which remain a key stabilizing factor in the troubled republic. The two states are now negotiating a permanent status for the troops.

Russia also Kyrgyzstan sent equipment to help it repel an attack by hundreds of Islamic rebels and agreed on joint armed action with Uzbekistan to prevent similar invasions there.

Winning over wary Uzbek President Islam Karimov is the key to any regional strategy, because the country is geographically central and boasts the largest population of 24 million people. Some say Putin has scored an early victory in that respect.

"Karimov had little time for (former Russian President) Boris Yeltsin, but seems to think that Putin is a man who makes sense and who is of the same mould," the Western analyst said.

Uzbekistan has reversed a decision announced at the start of last year to withdraw from the Collective Security Treaty uniting several former Soviet republics including Russia.

Putin's cause was aided by an apparent attempt on Karimov's life in February 1999, in a bomb attack which he blamed on extremist Islamic opponents with links to Afghanistan.

While Russia and Central Asia fret over the threats of refugees and violence posed by the Afghan fighting, they fear all-out victory by the Taleban movement more.

Its strict interpretation of Islam is at odds with the less conservative Muslim practices undergoing a revival in Uzbekistan and elsewhere.

And if the Taleban's opponents, led by ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Masood, were forced out of Afghanistan altogether, they might try to carry on the struggle from former Soviet territory.

That is why Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, among others, are believed to have supplied the opposition with arms.