Russia stokes fears of threats from ex-Soviet republics in Asia

Saturday, July 20, 2002

MOSCOW -- Extremists creeping across thinly guarded mountain frontiers, drug-runners willing to fight to deliver their goods, disputed borders and weak governments: The former Soviet republics of Central Asia are full of reasons for Russia to be anxious about its vast underbelly.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov underscored in a newspaper interview this month that "the threat for Russia hides in the Caucasus Mountains region and its Asian border."

"One of the main threats we have seen has not been the United States or NATO, but Afghanistan," he told the Izvestia daily.

Ivanov declined to be more specific about dangers from its southern border with Asia -- which includes 4,435 miles with Kazakhstan, south of which lie Central Asia and Afghanistan. But the rugged landscape of deserts and mountains is the habitat for Islamic extremists who Moscow fears could fuel thoughts of militancy or independence in its own Muslim-dominated regions, following the Chechen example in the Caucasus.

'Cheap way to be safe'

Russia supported the U.S.-led coalition after Sept. 11 in part to accomplish its own goal of eliminating Islamic groups, who had been using Afghanistan as a sanctuary and flourishing under Taliban sponsorship. Moscow assented to the Americans using military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

"The Americans are doing the job, for Russia it's a cheap way to be safe and still be in front in the area," said Olivier Roy, a senior researcher at France's National Center for Scientific Research and expert on Central Asia and Islam.

One of the main security risks in Central Asia had been from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or IMU -- a group labeled a terrorist organization by Washington and blamed for incursions in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan -- which had been closely connected to the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The Afghanistan campaign took its toll on the IMU, and its military leader Juma Namangani was reported killed in fighting in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. "They have no sanctuary, they have lost many fighters and they are under close observation," said Roy.

That doesn't mean the threat has been eliminated, said Ahmed Rashid, author of "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia," who notes there has not yet been any independent confirmation of Namangani's death. Although militants' ability to launch incursions may have been impeded, Rashid said underground networks across Central Asia have not been affected and could still carry out smaller attacks.

"You will not see what the Central Asians are used to, large-scale guerrilla forays," Rashid said in a telephone interview from Pakistan. "You will see acts of terrorism, particularly targeting the Americans."

The weakest link

Mention the topic of threats to Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia section at the Moscow-based Commonwealth of Independent States Institute, and he rattles off a litany of potential destabilizing factors for countries in the region: border disputes, potential civil unrest or now-dispersed Islamic groups.

Grozin names Kyrgyzstan as the "weakest link" in Central Asia, where the leadership has come under its strongest criticism since five people were killed in a March demonstration against the arrest of an opposition lawmaker.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that the small mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan has become the focus of some of the most intense recent Russian diplomacy.

Last month, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov watched anti-terrorist troops in Kyrgyzstan under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States -- a loose grouping of the former Soviet republics -- charge into the hills in exercises aimed at repelling incursions of the type launched by the IMU in the summers of 1999 and 2000.

"Obviously there is a strong feeling among the Russians that they've lost Central Asia in a way," said David Lewis, head for International Crisis Group in Central Asia who is based in Kyrgyzstan. "Kyrgyzstan is an obvious place where they can try and regain influence."

Russia lost most of its military presence in the region after the withdrawal of troops after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The largest remaining Russian force is in Tajikistan, where about 25,000 soldiers patrol the border with Afghanistan and are involved in regular shootouts with drug smugglers.

Lewis plays down the threat of extremist fighters launching any large attack -- as Russian and Kyrgyz officials keep warning -- saying it's the perception of danger that benefits Russia's position.

"A threat in some ways is quite useful to Russia," he said. "It is one of the reasons why any government in the region can't ignore Russia -- they never know quite when they just might need that military help."

Grozin invokes comments made by U.S. leaders that there is still a long way to go in the fight against terrorism, saying the same is true for threats emanating from Central Asia. Memories of the Soviet Union's Afghan war show how easily a reversal of fortune can come in the region, he said.

"It is far from being over," Grozin said.

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