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Central Asia: CIS Force Not Best Way To Combat Islamic Threat, Say Analysts

CIS member-states Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan are planning to create a joint rapid-reaction force to combat what is perceived as the growing regional threat of Islamic militant groups. Supporters of the plan call it a step toward an effective defensive partnership. But some Russian analysts, looking at other joint military efforts by the Commonwealth of Independent States, doubt the new initiative will be any more effective in fighting religious extremism -- a threat they say is still misunderstood in Moscow. In this second of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on why the plan to create a CIS rapid-reaction force may not get off the ground.

Moscow, 23 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- To its supporters, the plan for a special rapid-reaction force aimed at fighting the threat of Islamic militants in Russia and Central Asia seems like the beginning of a key strategic partnership. But detractors see the project, which would gather battalions from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia into a single fighting unit, as simply another opportunity for Russia to pursue its own military aims under the guise of regional cooperation.

As an example, critics point to Russia's 201st motorized infantry division, which has been stationed in Tajikistan since 1993 under a security arrangement that included efforts to fight drug and weapons smuggling across the border from Afghanistan. Until last September, the soldiers there worked under a CIS mandate as part of the commonwealth's peacekeeping troops. The mandate has since been lifted, but the troops remain, as part of a bilateral agreement between Moscow and Dushanbe.

The division works in harsh mountain conditions and has seen nearly 80 percent of its force drop out before the end of their service. It is almost entirely manned, financed, and equipped by Russia.

Many regional experts say this type of situation will be typical for years to come.

Alexey Malashenko, scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, says he doubts that collective CIS security efforts like the proposed rapid-reaction force will have much success.

He points to CIS peacekeepers currently stationed in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, where Moscow says neutral troops are needed to help maintain stable relations between separatists and Georgian nationalists. But Malashenko calls the CIS peacekeepers a "cover" for Russian troops, who are generally viewed as using their presence in the area to solidify Russian influence in the critical South Caucasus region.

He said CIS peacekeepers are being used today in much the same way Warsaw Pact troops were used in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 -- to camouflage what is essentially a Russian, or Soviet, military action. Malashenko goes on to call the Abkhazi strategy "logical":

"In practice, it has always been Russian forces [that are involved in CIS peacekeeping efforts]. I would say that this is true for two reasons. First of all, because I don't see any other army on the territory of the CIS that could realistically take part, or even be present and have some influence. And second, I don't see any state -- apart from Georgia, of course -- that would be interested in Abkhazia. So, in my opinion, [calling them 'CIS peacekeepers'] was a natural cover for Russia. You couldn't really call them 'Russian peacekeepers' -- that would have spurred some protest."

However, Malashenko adds, recent outbreaks of Islamic extremist violence in Central Asia cast future collaborative CIS efforts in a new light. He calls the notion of adding a rapid-reaction force to a larger CIS antiterrorist initiative a "nice idea."

But other CIS analysts doubt that the rapid-reaction force will ever be created. Vladimir Romanenko, the deputy director of the CIS Institute government think tank, says he knows CIS issues from "on-the-ground experience." A former marines commander for the Black Sea Fleet and Russia, Romanenko accompanied his troops into Abkhazia and Georgia during the separatist war there in 1992 to 1993.

Romanenko says a collective rapid-reaction force should have been created as early as 1992, when a Collective Security Treaty was signed in Tashkent by nearly all CIS member-states. The treaty laid the groundwork for joint CIS bodies like the antiterrorist center and peacekeeping troops, and was also meant to clear the way for the creation of a team of national battalions to fight growing threats from the ruling Taliban militia in neighboring Afghanistan. But Romanenko says that at one point in the mid-1990s, when the opposition in Afghanistan seemed to be gaining the upper hand, the idea for a collective rapid-reaction force was dropped.

Romanenko says now that the threat of religious extremism is once again on the rise in Central Asia, Russia has found itself pressured by fellow CIS members to contribute the majority of the money and manpower needed to create a joint force.

"Everyone quickly and happily agrees that the measure is necessary, everyone signs really nice documents. But everyone then quickly forgets about the concrete steps that need to be taken. Of the 400 documents adopted by the CIS within a military cooperation framework, in practice, only one, two, or three really work. And mainly these are the ones that are signed on a bilateral basis -- like the Open Sky Treaty [on international air control to monitor agreements on conventional arms] with Europe and with the CIS, and those with Belarus [as part of the Russia-Belarus Union]. Those are the only security documents that work."

Another factor weakening the collective security of the CIS, Romanenko adds, is that the agreements are often not collective. Uzbekistan, where Islamic extremism has contributed to growing instability in its Fergana Valley, should be a prime candidate for joint military agreements. But Tashkent abandoned the Collective Security Treaty in favor of drafting a bilateral military agreement with Russia to exchange weapons for natural gas.

Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova have also dropped out of the treaty, and Turkmenistan never signed it.

Romanenko says that many CIS members shy away from the financial demands needed for such joint military ventures, because most of them are simply unable to afford the expenditures required to bring their armies on a par with Russia's. The situation, he says, leaves Russia no other choice than to carry the bulk of the financial costs involved in building an army to fight the Islamic extremist threat.

But Malashenko of the Carnegie Endowment says that while the perceived threat of religious extremism makes natural allies of Russia and its CIS neighbors in Central Asia, the rapid-reaction force plan is itself fundamentally flawed.

Russia, Malashenko adds, is wrong to approach the Islamic threat -- in Central Asia as well as in regional trouble spots like Chechnya -- as a foreign, imported challenge. He says that Russia, blindsided by its failure to quell the separatist uprising in Chechnya -- which Moscow has continually presented as a war fueled by "international terrorists" -- now erroneously assumes it understands the nature of domestic Islamic uprisings in Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan.

"On the whole, the view [that the Islamic threat is an international, not domestic, challenge] is held by the entire Russian political establishment. Of course, [such an view] is most of all in the interest of the military, who were the first to confront [militant] Islamism in practice and present it as an enormous global enemy that is pressing on poor Russia from all sides. And it's profitable for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his entourage, because [it presents] Russia as a vanguard democratic state standing in the forefront of a battle against a new enemy."

Despite their differing points of view, both Carnegie's Malashenko and the CIS Institute's Romanenko say that Russia and the Central Asian states are likely to use bilateral military agreements, rather than a unified rapid-reaction force, to fight any future Islamic uprisings. Malashenko adds that such a move proves the CIS is little more than a form of what he calls "civilized divorce." But Romanenko says he hopes the bilateral partnerships will eventually clear the way toward greater CIS integration.