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Moscow Steps Up Central Asian Interest

Russia is trying hard to revive its influence in a region it has neglected without alienating Washington in the process.
By Sanobar Shermatova

Russia's government is engaged in a serious drive to re-establish influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to counter American encroachment, which has massively increased since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

In an interview with the magazine Kommersant-Vlast on June 11, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov made an unprecedented demand for the US to withdraw militarily from the region within a set period.

Announcing that the Kremlin was "not indifferent" to the American military presence in Central Asia - the US has a base in Uzbekistan and another one in Kyrgyzstan with a combined force of over 3,000 men - Ivanov said Russia would "strive for maximum transparency of their military activity in the region and time limits on their military presence".

At the same time, Moscow sent a high-level delegation to Kyrgyzstan, which signed a number of important military and technical cooperation agreements with the government in Bishkek.

Speaking in Bishkek on June 13, Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov sounded a more conciliatory note about the US presence than his namesake. He said the US activities there was no bar to growing Kyrgyz cooperation with Moscow, "American bases have been here for a while already, and there is nothing tragic in this."

But the minister's visit was a clear sign that Moscow does not intend to give up its position in the republic. Among the bilateral agreements the two sides signed was one that extends the time limit for Russia's own military facilities in Kyrgyzstan by several years. Ivanov himself said his country would continue to have a presence for seven to 15 years.

Moscow also announced a deal on the use of military-industrial facilities in Kyrgyzstan. "Bishkek and other cities have many military factories left over from Soviet times, and Russia is prepared to make use of their production," Ivanov said.

The deal delighted the Kyrgyz government, as the factories have been left to gather dust since the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s. In an interview with the Russian paper Moskovskie Novosti, the Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev recently spoke bitterly of his failed attempts to direct Moscow's attention to the military factories in the past.

Akaev said it was unfair that while Russia ignored these facilities, Kyrgyzstan was prohibited from using them to sell deep-water torpedoes to countries like Iran. With no orders from Moscow, the staff at Bishkek's military factories have been largely laid off and forced to work in flea markets.

Russia's return to the forgotten issue of military cooperation - after 12 years - is undoubtedly motivated by its wish to reanimate ties with the Central Asian republics, now in the US zone of influence.

In June, the Shanghai organisation, which groups several Central Asian states, Russia and China, adopted a charter and announced it was upgrading itself into a military and political association. The move was eloquent proof of Moscow's intention to balance its US friendship by getting on better with Beijing.

Russia cannot hope to rival the US in the amount of material aid it can offer the Central Asian states. Instead, its policy is to wait patiently for America's romance with Central Asia to end of its own accord. Moscow's political elite has no doubt this will happen.

At a spring summit in Almaty between leaders of Russia and Central Asia, the former discreetly pointed out the problems its neighbours can expect as their ties grow with the US, especially in the field of human rights.

Moscow reminded them that Washington is likely to demand standards on human rights, freedom of speech and free elections that many of the regimes in the region will find hard to live up to.

In support of its argument, Moscow can point to the fact that the presence of American troops in Central Asia has not reduced western and US criticism of the region's regimes but given it new impetus.

The halting moves some governments have taken to head off this criticism are unlikely to satisfy the critics. Uzbekistan, for example, has marginally relaxed media censorship. Under regular attack for the alleged use of torture against anti-government activists, Tashkent also recently tried and jailed four policemen for beating a suspect to death in prison.

These isolated attempts to soften the regime's image are unlikely to persuade western rights groups that the country is moving toward democracy. Proof the regime has not changed its spots was recently offered by the Uzbek rights body, Ezgulik.

The group reported that the police had received fresh orders to collect documents on members of the opposition Birlik and Erk parties as well as on the staff of Radio Liberty and the BBC and their families. The information the police sought included addresses, work places and photographs of the people concerned.

In reminding the Central Asian states of the problems they may face as their ties with Washington mature, the Kremlin has to tread a delicate path, however. At its recent meetings with Russia's southern neighbours, Moscow diplomats have had to ensure their discussions did not take on an anti-American character.

This is because Russia does not want to ruin its own developing relations with Washington by clumsily trying to drive a wedge between the US and Central Asia. Instead, Moscow intends to revive its old connections as much as possible, strengthen its presence in Central Asia, and quietly wait for the romance with America to fade.

Sanobar Shermatova is a correspondent for Moscow News

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