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Analysis From Washington - The 'Arc of Crisis' Returns

  • Paul Goble

Washington, April 24 (RFE/RL) - The reported death of Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev throws into dramatic relief the three fundamental security problems of the countries lying along the southern borders of the former Soviet Union.

These include border and status disputes inherited from the collapse of imperial systems, the absence of social structures to support national and state integration, and the resulting inability of outside powers to find interlocutors who can negotiate on behalf of their populations and actually deliver.

Each of these problems affects what used to be called the "arc of crisis" extending from China's Singkiang region in the east through Afghanistan and Tajikistan in Central Asia to Iran and the Caucasus and finally into eastern Turkey.

The first of them - border and status disputes inherited from the collapse of imperial systems - have received the most attention because such conflicts often spill over into violence. Because none of the borders or the resulting state structures in this region are the product of the actions of the peoples of the region but rather reflect the decisions of former imperial power, none of them are viewed by the local populations as fully legitimate.

But while such disputes receive the most attention, they are also the least likely to be resolved. That is because the international community has repeatedly said that it is unwilling to countenance any further changes in either the borders or political status of any territory in the region. As a result, those groups which seek such changes are likely to continue to use violence to press their cases.

That pattern will be further reinforced by the second underlying security problem of this region - the absence of social structures supporting national and state integration. With few exceptions, the peoples of this region are internally subdivided along clanic and tribal lines.

The imperial states that occupied or still occupy territories in this region played up these divisions as part of their strategy of rule. But one consequence of this is that these nominal nations lack much of the internal cohesion found in the national communities elsewhere in the world. And that in turn means that there are continuing and fundamental disagreements about identity and borders throughout the area.

Another consequence - and this is the third fundamental security threat - is that more often than not, there is no one in a position to speak for the national community as a whole and thus to be in a position to negotiate a settlement. Consequently, efforts to find such people - such as the West's desire to find an interlocutor in Afghanistan - or to decapitate a national movement - as the Russian government appears to have done in Chechnya - seldom work.

On the one hand, sub-national leaders are likely to ignore any decision by their nominal chiefs. That gives the national movements in these countries remarkable vitality: the Afghans defeated the Soviet invasion precisely because they were so internally divided. Had they been united, they might have lost.

But on the other, the absence of such leaders means that outside powers seldom know whom they can rely on. And consequently, the outsiders tend either to rely on force - as the Russians have done - or to turn away from trying to resolve the problems - as many Western countries appear to have decided to do.

These problems are not going to go away any time soon, and they will not ever be resolved until the outside powers recognize that the strategies they have employed to date - massive force and attempts to coopt unstable local elites - won't work over time.

Indeed, to the extent that the outside powers involved ignore these features of the local political landscape, these problems will only intensify, creating an "arc of crisis" in this region far more serious than any we have seen before.