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Is Moscow Returning To Central Asia?

(Prague, Czech Republic--October 25, 2000) Russia's status in Central Asia remains complicated today, nearly ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of independent countries in the region, the panelists participating in a discussion at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters agreed. All three asked the same question--had Russian authority ever left the region at all?

Milan Hauner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on the region, looked at Russia's presence in the region from a broad perspective. Russians, Hauner noted, who began to move into Central Asia more than a hundred years ago, never managed to assimilate the local ethnic groups. Although the number of ethnic Russians living in Central Asia has decreased by half in the last decade from an estimated former population of 10 million, the Russian element remains very strong in all aspects of local society: political, economic, cultural, and security.

Abbas Djavadi, RFE/RL's Tajik Service director and Merhat Sharipzhanov of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service discussed the ambiguous views of Russia held by Central Asian countries. On the one hand, a general euphoria has ruled throughout the region concerning political and economic independence from colonial Russia, while on the other, those same countries rely on Russian support in terms of security and protection from militant Islamic movements such as Afghanistan's Taliban.

At the same time, they said, the countries of Central Asia have become increasingly disappointed with the West, due to criticisms they receive of ongoing human rights violations and the harassment of journalists--in spite of the region's strategic importance for natural gas and oil production. This disappointment is moving Central Asian countries closer to Russia, which has also been criticised by Western institutions for abuses in Chechnya.

According to the panelists, the future of the region remains unclear. Several years will be needed to determine whether the countries created after the collapse of Soviet power in Central Asia will maintain a close partnership with Russia or if they will strengthen their ties with their Islamic neighbors.