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Central Asia's Balancing Act

By Lee, Ebon | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Central Asia's Balancing Act


Lee, Ebon, Harvard International Review


Between Terrorism and interventionism

Somewhere deep in the mountains of Tajikistan, several hundred Islamic militants are hiding, eager to continue their campaign against the secular governments of Central Asia. Although they believe they are fighting for an Islamic state, their efforts are having an unintended side effect: Russia has seized upon the wave of terror in Central Asia to re-establish its presence in the region. During the past decade, Islam has enjoyed a revival in Central Asia, partly in reaction to repression during the Soviet era. The Soviet leadership targeted the faithful with both propaganda and policy, closing 80 percent of all mosques throughout the empire. Despite efforts to stamp out Islam, Central Asia remained the most religious region of the Soviet Union, and religious fervor has only increased with the Soviet Union's dissolution. At the same time, the secular Central Asian governments have worked to exclude Islam from mainstream politics.

Since 1998, however, the threat of Islamic militancy in Central Asia has decidedly strengthened diplomatic and military relations between Russia and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Due to their location, economic situations, and historical legacies, these Central Asian republics (CARs) cannot and should not avoid close ties with Russia. However, they should be wary of entering into a relationship with Russia in which they are the dependent party. The Islamic insurgency in Central Asia is an opportunity for Russia to intervene and further its own interests in the region. But by being too eager to accept the forthcoming aid, the CARs risk developing an over-reliance on Russia that will compromise their long-term autonomy.

Instead, the republics should address the internal problems that keep them vulnerable to Russian influence. Any relationship they cultivate with Russia must be a mutually beneficial one that allows for the economic and political growth of the republics. A relationship built solely upon mutual fear of a common enemy, such as Islamic fundamentalism, runs the risk of relegating Central Asia to the status of a security buffer zone for Russia.

The Motive for Intervention

At a time when Russia is struggling to fend off isolation from its former European allies, it has more reason than ever to secure close relations with Central Asia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has acted on these interests m drawing the CARs ever closer to Russia. Against a backdrop of an expanding North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and increasing independence of the Baltic states, the influence Russia exerts in Central Asia is the last remnant of a lost empire.

Russia's participation in Central Asian affairs is also encouraged by the presence of Russians in Central Asia. In order to increase its hold on the region, the Soviet Union had encouraged the emigration of ethnic Russians to Central Asia. After independence, Russians made up approximately 10 percent of the population in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, 22 percent in Kyrgyzstan, and nearly 40 percent in Kazakhstan. These Russians were never assimilated into the population, and most have not learned the local language. Instead, they continue to think of themselves as Russians, a notion encouraged by Moscow. As long as a sizable Russian population remains in Central Asia, the Russian government will consider its welfare an extension of domestic policy.

Most importantly, however, Russia wishes to prevent the arrival of a hostile power on its southern border. Radical Islam is considered especially dangerous because of its perceived ability to spread uncontrollably from one region to another. Russia fears the ignition of extremist sentiments among its own substantial domestic Muslim population. Events in Chechnya have convinced the Russian leadership of the dangers of fundamentalism, as well as demonstrated to the world the lengths to which Russia will go in order to contain the threat.

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