Crosslines - Reverberations in Central Asia

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Reverberations in Central Asia
In the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, some analysts predicted a new "Great Game" in Central Asia between "secular" Turkey and "fundamentalist" Iran. This prediction soon proved false, as the power of both newly independent Russia and of infrastructural ties - economic, communications, transportation - reasserted themselves. By Barnett A. Rubin.
Russia asserted its military interest in the region by sending a "peacekeeping" force and border troops to support the reassertion of power by the old Communist elites of Tajikistan against a loose opposition coalition supported by Islamists in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. It asserted its economic hegemony through the debts that many states of the region accumulated to its Central Bank. "Reintegration" was the new byword.

The war in Chechnya has exposed the weak link in the policy of reintegration. Russia itself is still unstable, its borders and identity far from settled. Its army, hardly a stabilizing influence, may provoke new conflicts. Its inability to quell the Chechens may embolden those who oppose it elsewhere. And the as yet unreckoned financial burden of the adventure may deprive Russia of the economic wherewithal to sustain even the ghost of an empire.

Thus far the war is having different effects on different regions. The oil-rich republics around the Caspian sea -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan -- see that this war was fought over access to energy resources as much over the vaunted territorial integrity of Russia. Chechnya is not only an oil-rich province in itself; much more important, it sits astride the path for oil pipelines from Central Asia and the Transcaucasus to world markets. The only alternative routes would traverse Turkey or Iran, depriving Russia of much-needed leverage and weakening its position in one of the few markets where it can earn hard currency.

Indeed, the war in Chechnya is the culmination of months of Russian pressure against its oil-rich southern neighbours, including sponsoring a coup in Azerbaijan, shutting off the flow of oil from Kazakhstan and forcing through an agreement according to which the Caspian littoral states (including Russia) must approve all oil deals in the region.

Kazakhstan, mindful that the greatest threat to its own territorial integrity comes from its restive Russian-speaking population -- too large to qualify as a minority -- has responded like a fighter who hugs his opponent to avoid blows. While nationalists staged poorly attended (but officially tolerated) demonstrations against Russia's war in the Caucasus, the government signed a far-reaching set of agreements of cooperation on both economic and military matters. This included a rather vague agreement to set up joint Russian-Kazakh military forces. The latter is part a recognition of reality: the so-called army of Kazakhstan is a renamed part of the Soviet Army with a largely Russian officer corps. No one believes it could be relied on to serve Kazakh policies that opposed Russian national, or ethnic, interests.

Further south, however, where Russian troops remain locked in daily skirmishes with Tajik rebels based in Afghanistan, the intervention in Chechnya may loosen Russia's hold on the periphery of the old Soviet empire. Diplomats returning from Tajikistan report that the diversion of Russia's limited military resources to Chechnya has undermined the readiness of its troops in Tajikistan.

Formerly, this was the largest military deployment within former Soviet borders and had the best-trained and best-paid troops. The Afghanistan-based Tajik opposition seems emboldened. It has refused to attend a scheduled round of peace talks in Moscow, claiming, among other things, that Russia's attack on fellow Muslims in the Caucasus has deprived it of the status of honest broker. Despite a ceasefire agreement, incursions from Afghanistan have increased, and Russia responded by once again launching bombing raids into Afghanistan, killing civilians in the town of Faizabad, who were airlifted by the United Nations to Pakistan for treatment.

Indeed, the sight of Defence Minister Grachev, former commander of the Soviet ground forces in Afghanistan, calling for punitive raids against populations supporting Muslim guerrillas and denouncing his own president's human rights ombudsman as a traitor, recalls the worst days of Afghanistan.

Yet before interpreting aggressiveness as a sign of a renewed threat, one should recall that the demoralization of the Afghan war played a role in discrediting the Soviet system and weakening the military. Paradoxically, the same process, much further advanced, continues today. The disintegration, however, of Russian institutions, like the Soviet ones, is liable to spell unpredictable turmoil, not peaceful independence, for the new states of Central Asia.
Barnett A. Rubin is a political science professor at Columbia University and director of the new Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Affairs in New York. Specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus, he has just published two books: Mirror of the World: Afghanistan's State and Society in the International System and From Regional Conflict to State Disintegration: The Failure of International Conflict Resolution in Afghanistan.

=A9Copyright. CROSSLINES Global Report 1995. Uploaded with permission.