KABUL -- For most of the past 25 years, the Soviet House of Science and Culture in western Kabul -- once a symbol of Moscow's political and cultural clout in Afghanistan -- has stood in ruins, its exterior crumbling and riddled with bullet holes, its interior occupied by hundreds of drug addicts and squatters.
The decaying edifice embodied the demise of Soviet and Russian influence in Afghanistan.
Now, the Russian government is spending $20 million to restore the massive building, which will reopen later this year as the new Russian Cultural Center.
The reconstruction signals the return of Moscow's interest and influence in a country the Soviet Union once considered part of its strategic backyard.
The Russian Cultural Center is but one of around 150 projects Moscow is currently funding in Afghanistan. Russia is spending tens of millions of dollars to restore Soviet-era projects and reestablish its economic and cultural clout in the country.
In the past two years, Moscow has invested more than $100 million in Afghanistan, largely in housing construction. While that amount is modest compared to the billions of dollars invested by the United States, China, and India, it comes as the 12-year-old U.S.-led war there winds down. And that has sparked fears that Western aid for civilian projects will also dry up as interest in the country wanes.
In that light, Kabul is keen to bolster its ties with regional players like Russia to shore up security and its economic future. Much of Afghanistan's animosity toward Russia, a legacy of the Soviet Union's disastrous, decadelong invasion, has subsided, and many local companies are now eager to do business with Moscow.
Najibullah Khushbin, the owner of the Kabul-based Najibullah Khushbin Construction Company, says his firm is working to secure deals with several Russian companies, although he would not reveal any details. "We're very optimistic. My opinion is very positive about [Russian] investment," he says. "If foreign countries want to invest in Afghanistan, we're ready to help as much as we can."
Rahman Watanwal is the CEO of Mainawal Rahman Building and Construction, another company based in the Afghan capital. He says Russia has a great track record in construction and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. That, he says, is in stark contrast to what he calls the gross waste and mismanagement of U.S.-funded projects in the country. "We're very happy that Russia is helping Afghanistan. They're our neighbor, so it's very important," Watanwal says. "Their help was very significant [in the past], and they're still very efficient."
Back In The U.S.S.R.
The Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, a government office overseeing foreign investment in the country, says Russia has doubled its investment in Afghanistan in each of the past two years and it expects Russia's investment to continue expanding.
Afghan refugees live on the destroyed stage of the outdoor theater at the former Soviet Cultural Center in Kabul in December 2002.
Besides the Russian Cultural Center, Moscow's investment projects include restoring Soviet-built housing complexes, reequipping old Soviet factories, and building new facilities for the country's construction and energy sectors.
And Kabul still retains many architectural artifacts of its Soviet past that have endured the ravages inflicted by three decades of conflict. These include the Polytechnic University, built in the 1960s; an industrial bakery that is still turning out thousands of loaves of bread every day for hospitals and schools; the Auto Mechanic engineering school; and swimming pools atop many of the city's hills.
Perhaps the Soviet Union's most enduring physical legacy in Kabul is the gray apartment blocks originally built for Soviet bureaucrats and the Afghan elite that are still among the most desirable residential areas of the city. The four-bedroom apartments might be plain and small, but they currently sell for as much as $100,000.
Russia is not only interested in restoring old Soviet infrastructure projects, however. Moscow is also trying to reestablish its cultural influence in the country. The number of students learning the Russian language at Kabul University has doubled over the past two years, as has Russia's intake of Afghan students on scholarships.
The Russian Cultural Center is at the forefront of this initiative. In the 1980s, the House of Science and Culture was where Soviets and Afghans gathered for lectures and films and to study Soviet literature and communist ideology. The new Russian Cultural Center will feature a huge library and will host Russian-language courses, exhibitions, and concerts. The center will also include guest rooms for visiting Russian teachers, artists, and business people.
Cold War II?
Russia's renewed interest and investment in Afghanistan coincides with a warming in relations between the two countries.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently backed Russia's annexation of Crimea, a move that has been supported by only a handful of other countries, such as Venezuela and Syria. That came after Karzai traveled to Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi in February for the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics, an event boycotted by most Western leaders.
Soviet-built apartment blocks in Kabul are still popular among the Afghan elite.
To be sure, Moscow has motivations other than economics to maintain close ties with Kabul. Russia -- which is battling myriad social problems associated with drug addiction -- wants to halt the supply of illicit drugs coming into the country from Afghanistan and has funded a number of antinarcotic initiatives. It is also keen to prevent the infiltration of Islamist militants into the Muslim-majority former Soviet Central Asian republics, which still receive substantial money and guidance from Moscow.
But the timing of Moscow's investment drive -- just as the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is ending and Western aid commitments may falter -- has raised eyebrows in some quarters.
Afghan political analyst Ahmad Saeedi says Afghanistan might once again become a stage for U.S.-Russian rivalry. Saeedi believes Washington should be concerned about Russia's activities in Afghanistan, which he says are obviously intended to counter U.S. influence. "Russia is recognizing that America's role in this region is getting weaker, both economically and politically," Saeedi says. "Russia is trying to harm America's interests in Afghanistan. Russia is also trying to reestablish its power and influence."
But Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, says Washington should actually be supportive of a larger role for Russia in Afghanistan. "If NATO and the United States can get over their old Cold War instincts, they will see that drawing Afghanistan's neighbors and regional neighbors into the project of state-building here is really in their interest," he says. "The engagement of Russia can play a medium- to long-term role in stabilizing Afghanistan."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul had no comment.