Russia unnerved by sudden interest

Central Asia
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The Independent Online

At first it seemed that Russia could only benefit from the devastating suicide attacks in New York and Washington. Even the main Chechen rebel website, which seldom mentions developments favourable to Russia, ran a headline saying: "American tragedy is favourable to Moscow". President Vladimir Putin had long claimed that in Chechnya he was defending Western civilisation by holding the line against Islamic terror. Now the terrible events in America seemed to guarantee him a hearing in future in Western Europe and the US.

But the crisis also holds dangers for Moscow. It is propelling the five states of central Asia, all formerly in the Soviet Union, into the political limelight. Previously, as a report by the International Crisis Group on central Asia notes, the American policy had "the goal of reducing Russia's influence" in the region.

It was not a goal the US pursued with great energy or resources. It was only one part of the general rivalry between Washington and Moscow in different parts of the old Soviet Union such as Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus. By and large, however, Moscow remained the predominant power in a region with weak states and limited resources.

That could now change. The central Asian states have diverse interests. Tajikistan, riven by civil war in the 1990s, is close to being a Russian client state. Uzbekistan, though run on authoritarian Soviet lines, is suspicious of Russian influence.

Last week Sergei Ivanov, the Russian Defence Minister, stated categorically that even in the most hypothetical of cases Russia did not want America to use bases in central Asia in its campaign against Afghanistan. He may have been assuming too much. Abdul Kamilov, Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister, later appeared to say that his country would let America use its territory. A short segment of Uzbekistan shares a common frontier with Afghanistan.

This presents Moscow with a dilemma. It could make air corridors available to the US without reducing its influence. But what if central Asian states started making unilateral agreements with America that in effect cut out Russia? Moscow recalls that the Gulf War against Iraq left America as the dominant power in the Gulf. Russia's agreement not to stand in Washington's way during the war with Iraq won it no benefits and was seen by the rest of the world simply as a demonstration of weakness.

For the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the views of the states of central Asia have some importance. Moscow is a little unnerved to find such international interest in its own back yard.