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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tajikistan: Not Russia's New Empire

The CIS is dead, long live the new Russian sphere of influence. That seems the best way to interpret a series of moves by Moscow that culminated this week with President Boris Yeltsin's statement that the Tajik-Afghan border "is effectively Russia's, not Tajikistan's border".

It was an extraordinary statement, even if one accepts that it referred to the need to protect Russia from the advance of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. With a single phrase the sphere of Russia's immediate interests was expanded - on the highest possible authority - to the southern fringe of Central Asia.

One well might question Russia's right to such claims, as they smack of empire building and risk miring the country's youth once again in a war with Afghanistan. But it would be a brave man who would pull all Russian troops out of Tajikistan and abandon the border to its fate.

The Tajik government depends for its very existence on Russian troops and border guards, as does, for now, the Tajik state itself. The gap should have been filled by a collective force of Commonwealth troops - as was agreed at the Minsk summit meeting of Commonwealth leaders earlier this year. But the Commonwealth has failed miserably to respond, leaving only the Russians.

The danger for Yeltsin is that he should not take his own rhetoric too seriously. There is a role for Moscow to play on the Tajik-Afghan border, but it is one of damage control, not empire building. Russia must exert extreme care in escalating its involvement, which could develop into an unwinnable Afghan-style war.

The new sphere of influence would also include Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - as was indicated when these three countries were the only ones to react with equanimity to the Russian Central Bank's disastrous currency reform. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan all apparently had assurances that Moscow would supply them with the new cash they will need to stay in the ruble zone.

These countries had been the staunchest supporters first of Mikhail Gorbachev's Union Treaty and then of a strong Commonwealth. But with the abolition of the post of a CIS commander in chief and the failure of all attempts to construct an effective economic union, the CIS is no longer a serious proposition.

Not relying on the Commonwealth, Russia is reasserting its dominance in Central Asia by other means. At this unstable time there is little that can oppose such an aggressively forward policy. But if the aim is to rebuild the empire, this policy could have disastrous consequences for Russia and for Central Asia.