Political and military officials from both the U.S. and Russia have been visiting the CIS countries of Central Asia with offers of training and other help. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that what these countries seek most is security aid -- and that is where the Russians have been offering the most.
Prague, 14 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has visited Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and today she is in Uzbekistan. Her visit is just the latest in an April parade of U.S. and Russian dignitaries through the region.
CIA Director George Tenet was in Central Asia this month, followed by FBI head Louis Freeh. The Kremlin's Chechnya spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky just finished a tour of the region, preceded by Russian Security Council head Sergei Ivanov. And General Leonid Maltsev, a high Russian official for CIS military cooperation, was also an April visitor. This month has also already seen two sets of military exercises in the region, as well as a conference of CIS security ministers.
The topic running through all these events is security in Central Asia -- and the United States and Russia seem to be competing to assist the five countries.
Security became the dominant issue for the region last year, when a series of insurrections and terrorist attacks shook the confidence of several Central Asian governments. In February 1999, terrorists planted bombs in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in an apparent attempt to kill President Islam Karimov. In August, hundreds of mainly Uzbek Islamic extremists crossed from Tajikistan into southern Kyrgyzstan, seized villages and took hostages in what became a two-month standoff. The group, which calls itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and is believed to be responsible for the attempt against Karimov, said it wanted to overthrow the Uzbek government and establish an Islamic state. The militants retreated to their bases in Tajikistan, and are still considered a threat.
This Islamic movement has proved an effective lever for Russia to promote its interests in Central Asia. On Wednesday in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, Yastrzhembsky told a press conference that Kyrgyzstan, as he put it:
"...considers Russia as its strategic partner, as a state that can help immediately if, god forbid, some setbacks like the events of last year happen."
That was also Yastrzhembsky's message to Uzbek President Karimov earlier this week. Karimov pulled his country out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty last year, saying the treaty provided no guarantee of help. Following the visit of Russia's then-prime minister Vladimir Putin last December, Tashkent changed its view of relations with Russia. This year, Karimov has often spoken of defeating terrorists and militants with Russia's help.
Moscow has a substantial military presence in the region. Some 20,000 soldiers are under Russian command in Tajikistan, guarding the border with Afghanistan.
When the security heads of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia met last weekend in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, several of them said they needed Russia's help. Kyrgyz security chief Bolot Januzakov said there are signs of trouble again along his country's southern border. And Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov said separatism, religious extremism and terrorism are growing trends in the region as a whole.
Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov talked tough at that meeting, saying that the fight against international terrorism sometimes requires unconventional methods. When asked whether Afghanistan could be a target for strikes, Ivanov even said he would not rule that out under certain circumstances.
"If the situation is menacing, and if aggression and banditry take on a large-scale character, I would not theoretically exclude this possibility."
As the month of April started, the CIS military exercises known as Southern Shield 2000 were about halfway through. Some 13,000 troops from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan practiced ways to counter the kind of attack seen in Kyrgyzstan last year. Live-fire exercises near the southern Uzbek border city of Termez simulated destroying terrorist bases in Afghanistan. And live-fire exercises in southern Tajikistan simulated repelling a large incursion from Afghanistan.
Observing those maneuvers, Russian General Maltsev took the opportunity to repeat a common Russian theme, saying the militants plaguing Central Asia are the same kind of threat that Russian troops are fighting in Chechnya. The implication is clear: Russia has dealt strongly against what it calls "terrorists" and can lend its neighbors this expertise.
The U.S., too, has been quick to demonstrate that it can offer military aid. As Southern Shield 2000 was ending, a U.S. Army mountain warfare unit was drilling with Uzbek soldiers north of Tashkent. Officially, the exercise was just routine training in keeping with bilateral agreements. But Uzbekistan does not have mountains. The mountains are farther east, in Tajikistan, and somewhere in them lurk the militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
During their Central Asian visits, CIA director Tenet and FBI director Freeh are likely to have discussed security and counter-terrorist measures. Little information, however, was made public. Freeh said the FBI is opening an office in Kazakhstan to assist in investigations of money-laundering.
When U.S. Secretary of State Albright visits Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan next week, security will certainly be one topic. But Albright will be obliged to mention the recent elections in all three countries, which were not very democratic. State Department spokesman James Foley said the secretary would not "pull any punches" criticizing the countries for their poor records on human rights and democratic practice.
The United States can supply the region with many things, such as financial support and technical aid. Russia can supply the region with one big thing, military support. The more worried about security Central Asian leaders become, the more likely they are to seek military aid instead of focusing on long-term democracy building.
(Iskander Aliyev of the Tajik Service and Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)