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How Should Russia Deal With Central Asia?

Pro-democracy activists gather on Tahrir Square in Cairo in April
Pro-democracy activists gather on Tahrir Square in Cairo in April
Will the ongoing popular uprisings in Arab countries spread to Central Asia and what role should Russia play in the region?

The topics were high on Russian lawmakers' agenda this week during the State Duma's special hearing, "Central Asia: Strategic Partnership and Security Issues."

The situation in Central Asia is of "extreme concern" said lawmaker Aleksei Ostrovskiy, who pointed out similarities between the former Soviet region and the Arab countries experiencing popular revolts.

"The rate of the population growth in Central Asia is the same as in Egypt, and most of the population lives in poverty," Ostrovskiy said. According to Ostrovskiy, it was labor migration to Russia that has prevented a "social explosion" in Central Asia.

Shortly before the hearing, Ostrovskiy has warned that situation in Central Asia has a direct impact in Russian national interests, as it poses threats of cross-border crimes, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, terrorism, and illegal migration.

During the Duma hearing, Ostrovskiy suggested that Russia should try to prevent "any negative scenario" in Central Asia, playing the role of the "guarantor of stability in the region." Grigory Karasin, a deputy foreign minister, however, suggested Russia is not seeking any "exceptional role in Central Asian affairs."

Karasin said the threat of drug trafficking and extremism from neighboring Afghanistan adds to Central Asia's growing political, social, and economic problems. As a way to avert any potential "Arab scenario" in the region, the Russian diplomat called for democratic changes and reforms.

As for those democratic changes and reforms, lawmaker Semyon Bagdasarov suggests all those decisions should be left to governments in Central Asia as it is "their internal affair."

The lawmaker told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that Russia should only focus on specific issues connected to its national security, such as the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism in the region.

Bagdasarov said he was against Russia getting involved in Central Asian countries' domestic affairs, adding that was what the West does. It wants to change the situation in other countries without actually knowing the real state of affairs on the ground and usually ends up destabilizing it, he said.

-- Farangis Najibullah