DATE=5/24/2000 TYPE=BACKGROUND REPORT TITLE=RUSSIA AND CENTRAL ASIA NUMBER=5-46368 BYLINE=ED WARNER DATELINE=WASHINGTON CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: Reasserting Moscow's authority, President Vladimir Putin has begun a drive to restore Russian influence in Central Asia. That is generally welcomed by the autocratic, ex-Communist leaders of the region who are tired of Western lectures on democracy and fear the spread of radical Islam. There is even talk of a Russian military attack on Afghanistan, 11 years after Moscow's humiliating retreat from a war that helped topple the Soviet empire. V-O-A's Ed Warner reports on this more forceful Russian policy in Central Asia. TEXT: "A threat to Uzbekistan is a threat to Russia," President Putin said recently, after signing a series of agreements on military cooperation with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. In turn, President Karimov declared: "A nation like Uzbekistan is not in a position to defend itself. This protection we seek from Russia." That meeting of minds signifies a revival of Russia power in Central Asia, according to analysts at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation. President Karimov, in particular, is alarmed by the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the only genuine opposition in the region's autocratic countries. Russia is equally concerned about fervent Islamists joining their fellow Muslims in the war in Chechnya, and the risk of that conflict spreading to the rest of the northern Caucasus. To that end, Moscow is stepping up its aid to anti- Taleban forces in northern Afghanistan and making more ominous threats, says Leila Helms, a close observer and supporter of the Taleban who control most of Afghanistan: /// 1st HELMS ACT /// Over the past few weeks, Russian officials at various conferences and press occasions have been basically indicating that they might conduct missile strikes against Afghan positions. The Russians are using the Chechen rebels as an excuse to try to intimidate Afghanistan. There is no proof that the Chechens are being trained in Afghanistan or that there is any association. But this is a convenient excuse to conduct missile strikes against Afghanistan. /// END ACT /// Russia has some grounds for worry, says Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska. Islamists trained at bases in Afghanistan are joining the battle in Chechnya, though they may not be Afghans: /// 1st GOUTTIERRE ACT /// I think what we have here are individuals who have been trained within Afghanistan, at the bases that Osama bin Laden runs, and who go out from there and fight either in Kashmir or in Central Asia in the Fergana Valley or, as the Russian are alleging, in Chechnya. But you have to remember that the Talebs themselves are fighting a very, very crucial war of their own in Afghanistan, and I cannot really see them freeing up people to go off fighting in Chechnya. It is not a common Afghan trait, in any case. /// END ACT /// Mr. Gouttierre says it is hard to tell where the Islamist recruits come from, given the fluid borders in the region. Leila Helms says accusing Afghans of fighting in Chechnya gives Russia an excuse for attacking the country: /// 2ND HELMS ACT /// Essentially, there is not really a threat of Islamic fundamentalism from Afghanistan, because the Taleban is a very indigenous, traditional Afghan movement, and they have always consistently said that they are not interested in moving into the Central Asian countries, either ideologically or militarily. Fundamentalism is being thrown up as an excuse for trying to isolate the Taleban. /// END ACT /// But Mr. Gouttierre says the prolonged war in Chechnya is leading to the regional Islamist movement Russia fears: /// 2ND GOUTTIERRE ACT /// The Islamic world has become alarmed at the war that has been ongoing there, the setbacks the Chechens have faced, and now sees an opportunity to provide assistance to the Chechens. In that type of situation, we are likely to hear that more and more people are coming to the assistance of the Chechens. In a sense, Chechnya today is what Afghanistan was in the `80's, to those who believe that they must help their Muslim brothers. /// END ACT /// Russia is currently providing aid to the forces in northern Afghanistan still fighting the Taleban. But Russians are divided on the wisdom of more direct military involvement. /// REST OPT /// Mr. Goutierre says some Russians continue to defend their invasion of Afghanistan: /// 3RD GOUTTIERRE ACT // There are a lot of people who still have a kind of scar in their political psyche for having failed in Afghanistan, to the degree that they did, and to the degree that it also brought down the Soviet empire. It gives them a chance to point out that they were correct in dealing with the Afghan situation because of the extremist elements, as they call them, in Afghanistan. These are of course, the Talebs and Osama bin Laden, who gained sanctuary there. /// END ACT /// Moscow also has important economic interests in Central Asia, says Julia Nanay, director of the Petroleum Finance Company, a private consulting firm in Washington. Now that President Putin is clearly in charge with substantial political backing, he can be more assertive: /// NANAY ACT /// President Putin's regional diplomacy is going to be conducted alongside the oil and gas interests of Russia. He has made it clear that he wants the political and commercial interests to align, and he is going to place a greater emphasis on reorienting the interests back toward Russia. The United States is trying to make this an area of strategic interest through pipelines, but I think Russia is going to work hard to offset that. /// END ACT /// Much depends on the Taleban, who now may frighten the United States more than Russia does. By harboring Osama bin Laden and continuing their harsh treatment of their own people, especially women, they remain estranged from the countries that can help them. Thomas Gouttierre says some Taleban are waking up to this and making a point of going to other countries and receiving foreign visitors: /// 4TH GOUTTIERRE ACT /// I think Afghans are becoming more and more aware of the fact that the world is passing them by while they are embroiled in this continuing warfare. Afghans are not extreme in the practice of Islam. They are inherently strong believers, but they are bothered by what they view as religious imperialism, a form of Islam which is not really indigenous to the Afghans. /// END ACT /// Mr. Gouttierre says the Taleban have shown they can survive the pressures of war, sanctions and ostracism. Now they must show a milder face, to revive their long-suffering country and eliminate an excuse for Russian intervention. (Signed) NEB/EW/WTW 24-May-2000 12:24 PM EDT (24-May-2000 1624 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .