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Central Asia: Assessing Rising Tension

  • Bruce Pannier

Tensions have been rising in Central Asia since early April, when Russian officials began threatening attacks on alleged terrorist bases in Afghanistan. This week, a group of RFE/RL Central Asian specialists held a round table to discuss the Russian threats and their effects in the area. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports on the panel's conclusions.

Prague, 8 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since Russian officials started threatening preventive strikes on terrorist bases in Afghanistan two months ago, tensions have been on the rise in much of Central Asia.

There are at least two major focuses for the tensions. For one thing, if Russia carried out its threats of anti-terrorist strikes, that would place two of the five Central Asian states, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, directly on the front line of hostilities. The Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement has threatened to retaliate against them for any Russian strike.

For another thing, security services in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan say that members of the armed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, are currently in Tajikistan. These militants have already left a violent mark on the area. Last summer, hundreds of IMU militants invaded southern Kyrgyzstan, staging hit-and-run attacks in a much-advertised attempt to overthrow the Uzbek government. Many in Central Asia fear that this summer, the IMU will renew its attempt to overthrow the Uzbek government.

These and other Central Asian issues were discussed by a panel of RFE/RL specialists at a round table in Prague yesterday.

The participants agreed that Russian threats to attack terrorist camps in Afghanistan were meant to serve Moscow's interests in two ways. First, panelists said, they were intended to help Moscow in its campaign against Chechen separatist rebels, suspected of having training camps in Afghanistan. Second, the threats could also promote Russian interests on the ground in Central Asia's five former Soviet republics, where Moscow lost considerable influence during the nearly nine years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency. Panelists noted that not only has Russia said it may attack terrorist bases in Afghanistan, but it has also offered military help to the CIS Central Asian states now facing threats from the IMU.

But Smagul Yelubayev of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service said he believes a Russian attack on Afghan territory would lead to dire consequences:

"In this kind of war, there will be no winner. It would be the start of 100 years of war in Central Asia. If the Russian government attacks Afghanistan and this is backed by the leaders of neighboring states like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, then on that very day the leaders of Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan will be terrorists numbers one, two, and three in the eyes of Afghanistan."

Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service questioned whether Russian claims to be fighting international terrorism are really sincere. He noted that the IMU militants have bases in Tajikistan, and that twice within less than a year they have been deported across the Tajik border into Afghanistan. Russian border guards, he pointed out, police the Tajik-Afghan border. Aioubov said:

"Russian border guards are in command on the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia talks about the battle with Islamic terrorism, with international terrorism. But if the Russians really want to fight Islamic terrorism, how can they allow the IMU militants to cross the border into Afghanistan, then return to Tajikistan, then once again cross into Afghanistan, and then yet again -- if the information of Kyrgyz security chief Bolot Januzakov is confirmed -- return to Central Asian territory?"

The panel agreed that -- if Central Asian states were willing to cooperate with one another -- they probably would not need Russia's help to defeat the Uzbek militants or to secure borders with Afghanistan. But they also agreed that such cooperation has seldom been characteristic of the region. Zamira Echanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service commented:

"If we look back at our history, when there was the first incursion by Tsarist Russia, there was a similar fragmented situation in the region. The local chieftains and the states over which they presided could not agree among themselves. Each of the chiefs considered his main task to be the defense of his own, often small, territory, and believed that whatever else happened was not his concern."

The main conclusion of the RFE/RL round table was that Russia's threats to hit terrorist bases in Afghanistan have served to aggravate what was already a tense situation. Today, Central Asia appears less, not more, stable than it was before the Russian threats began in early April. And, adding to the danger, Central Asian governments seem no closer to achieving the level of cooperation needed to deal with what is clearly a common problem.

(Tengiz Gudava of the RFE/RL's Russian Service and Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service also participated in the round table and contributed to this report.)