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Analysis From Washington - Troubles Along The Rim

  • Paul Goble

Washington, May 22 (RFE/RL) -- Ever more frequent reports of instability along the eastern and southern borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States are having enormous consequences for the immediately adjoining countries within the CIS, for Russia itself, and for relations between Moscow and these countries.

In the past week alone, there have been numerous stories about serious ethnic and religious clashes in Xinjiang and Tibet, new violence in Afghanistan, ethnic turmoil among the Turkmens and Azerbaijanis of northern Iran, and Kurdish assertiveness in eastern Turkey.

The causes of each of these conflicts are specific. Some reflect longstanding ethnic and religious grievances against outside occupiers, others appear to be sponsored by third parties, and still others are simply part of the sorting out of the collapse of central authority.

But the simultaneous emergence of a rising tide of instability along so much of the former Soviet border is already having a greater impact on policy makers in the region than any one of these conflicts would have had by itself.

In the countries of Central Asia and the Transcaucasus, the governments are frightened of three possibilities: a spillover of such conflicts onto their own territories via ethnic or other channels, the possibility that such conflicts will close preferred trade routes and force them to use Russian routes exclusively, and the likelihood that Moscow will insist and that they will have to agree to the stationing of more Russian troops on the so-called "external" borders of the CIS.

Each of these countries has adopted its own strategy. Some such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have taken steps to distance themselves from any conflicts in Chinese territories. Others such as Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have tried to appeal to their co-ethnics in Iran to block their use by third countries. And all appear to be using the threat of a spillover as a justification for tightening central control over their own territories.

The impact of this violence is also affecting Russia, particularly in this electoral season. The possibility that such violence could quickly engulf Russia's more immediate neighbors worries many Russian political leaders and reminds everyone of just how much stability Russians lost when Moscow's power retreated from the former Soviet republics.

And these concerns in turn force Russian politicians to adopt a more assertive line with regard to Russia's neighbors. At the same time, however, some in Moscow clearly see this instability as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Russian officials from President Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov on down have pointed to instability beyond the borders of the CIS as the reason that all pipelines from Central Asia and the Caucasus must go through Russia. And these and other Russian officials have demanded the placement of additional Russian troops in these regions because of this instability.

While some officials in these countries feel they have no choice but to agree -- after all, they feel threatened too -- many view these Russian demands as almost equally threatening. Azerbaijan has successfully resisted Russian demands for the stationing of Russian guards on its southern border. And Georgia is demanding that Russian forces pull out of Georgia unless they live up to OSCE mandates.

In Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have also resisted Russian demands on this score while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been more forthcoming. (Tajikistan, in the midst of its own civil war, seems to lack any autonomy on such questions.)

In short, the violence beyond the rim of the CIS has already had a profound spillover effect within it albeit not the one that so many have feared or expected.