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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Troubled Border

The recent dramatic events in Tajikistan are not only destabilizing the situation in Central Asia, they could also have a strong influence on the CIS as a whole.


There is a civil war going on in Tajikistan between government forces supported by the Popular Front (the successor to the Communist Party) and the united Islamic opposition.


In spite of its victory in 1992, when, after fierce battles the Moslems were routed and tens of thousands of them fled into neighboring Afghanistan, the ruling regime has not been able to normalize the situation, and has maintained itself in power largely thanks to the help of Russia and Uzbekistan.


The summer of 1993 was used by the rebels, particularly from Gorno-Badakhshan, a southern province of Tajikistan, as an opportunity to widen the struggle with government forces. Acting in unison with the rebels were refugees from among the 60, 000 who are now in northern Afghanistan.


Some reports say that the operations of the Islamic opposition were actively supported by the firepower of Afghan military units from the 15th and 55th infantry divisions deployed near the border with Tajikistan. The Afghan government has denied this information, attributing the action to "uncontrollable groups of mujahedin".


One of the most notorious incidents on the Afghan-Tajik border took place on the night of July 12-13, when 200 Islamic soldiers launched a surprise attack on Border Post 12. In. the attack 25 Russian border guards lost their lives.


In northern Afghanistan there are seven training camps for Tajik soldiers recruited from among the refugees. The president of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani, acknowledged that Islamic fanatics from other countries are turning Afghanistan into a major base for training extremists for the "holy war", or jihad, not only in Tajikistan, but also in Bosnia, Israel, and the Indian state of Kashmir.


Meanwhile the battle is being fed by purely local sources. For example, on Aug. 18 in the Ainsky district of the Leninabad region a bridge across the river Yagnob was blown up. This was one of a small number of bridges that united Dushanbe with the Zeravshansky valley. There were other, similar actions by the local rebels.


Of course it is not only military maneuvers and terrorist acts in Tajikistan that bear witness to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia. In spite of the harsh authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan, there are indications that Islamic fundamentalism is gaining ground in that republic as well, especially in Samarkand.


Even in Kazakhstan, with its multinational population (Russians make up 37 percent) the influence of Islam is growing, especially in the southern provinces. In 1992-93 there were more than 130 mosques built or restored in Kazakhstan.


The danger of the expansion of militant Islamic fundamentalist movements in the former U. S. S. R. , where 62. 7 million people are members of this faith, is self-evident. The main threat is the possibility of a rapid penetration of Islamic fundamentalism from Afghanistan (and also, partly, from Tajikistan), into republics further to the north, into the Central Asian republics, and from there toward the Volga basin, where peoples of Islamic faith, including the Tatars, in the center of Russia may fall easy prey to their message.


A number of factors are contributing to the rapid expansion of Islamic fundamentalism. Among these are the general process of disintegration, including in Russia itself, and the growing feeling of frustration among the peoples of the former Soviet Union.


In the current situation, Russia and the Central Asian republics are trying to combine their efforts. There have been numerous meetings and conferences. On Aug. 7 the heads of the Central Asian states and Russia met, and on Aug. 22 the heads of the security organs of Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan convened.


Russia is faced with a very difficult choice.


One option is leaving Tajikistan. The inevitable loss of the country that will follow will open the way for Islamic fundamentalism with all of its far-reaching consequences. In the most general sense this will mean a significant increase of the so-called Islamic geopolitical zone.


In an immediate, concrete way the wave of militant fundamentalism will approach the southern borders of Russia itself, and Russia will be forced to continue its defense efforts on its own borders, which are not at all equipped for this purpose. Russia's departure from Tajikistan will also turn the 9 million Russians living there into hostages of the new Islamic regimes or the uncontrollable fundamentalist groups.


On the other hand, the converse option will amount to a continuation and an ever deeper entanglement of Russia in the fight against the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan, which in effect means a repetition of the unpopular Afghan war, in today's difficult conditions.


Finally, and this could be the most difficult problem, the experience of the fight against fundamentalism in other areas of the world shows that force is not very effective.


All of these contradictory factors are forcing Russia to adopt a wide variety of strategies. Russia is trying to convince the Tajik leadership, not without some success, to enter into negotiations with the Afghan leadership and with at least some opposition groups. Russia is trying to obtain the cooperation of Afghanistan and other Moslem countries to try to stabilize the region. Simultaneously Russia and the Central Asian republics have guaranteed various kinds of aid to Tajikistan.


Ilya Mogilyovkin is a professor at the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International relations.