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Russia and the US competing for influence in Central Asia

M.S. Ahmed

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been striving to retain its control of the new Central Asian republics, among them Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. The UShas been trying very hard to replace Moscow's influence with its own; it has succeeded in acquiring, for example, a military base in Kyrgyzstan alongside Russia's. But poverty, corruption, tribal and social frictions, and the unlawful retention of dictatorial powers by the new rulers – all the legacy of Soviet rule – have destabilised all three countries, which now face the prospect of disintegration. The two rivals for control of the region, alarmed by this prospect, are competing to mediate the disputes leading to the conflicts. But as both are part of the problem and reject the introduction of the values of Islam that can dispose of the parochialism and Soviet culture at the root of the conflicts, they are highly unsuitable for the task of mediation, and have nothing to offer that the peoples of Central Asia would not be better off without.

It is in the chaotic situation in Kyrgyzstan that both are most likely to intervene. Although the country is poor and small, it is nevertheless strategically important, being on the northwestern border of China and hosting two military bases. The first was installed to support American operations in Afghanistan; the second has been built to show that Moscow is not prepared to give up its influence just because the US has moved in. But despite their competition for control, the two powers have a vital strategic aim in common, namely to thwart local Islamic movements; preferably also the emergence of Islamic groups or parties that will contest, and win, elections; and even the development of strong relations with countries such as Islamic Iran, which has strong historical links with Central Asia. They are therefore much more likely to cooperate than to come to blows to win what they are trying unconvincingly to disguise as a ‘war against terrorism'.

Their joint hunt throughout the region for ‘Islamic terrorists' belonging to al-Qa'ida, the Taliban, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, is supported by the region's despots: Israel and Arab ‘allies' of theUS such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Washington, which certainly did not object to Moscow's programme to appoint its stooges as rulers of the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union – is certain to prevent any of its Muslim allies from taking an active interest in the promotion of Islamic groups to develop their political role in Central Asia. Washington's declared aim of entrenching democracy in Central Asia is as hollow as its well-publicised democratic programme for the Middle East.

Moscow's intervention in the formation of new political systems after the end of Soviet rule was blatant and outrageous. In Azerbaijan, for instance, the Azeri Popular Front took power in 1990 from the local Communist Party and declared Azerbaijan's independence from the Soviet Union, but Soviet troops overthrew the Popular Front and restored the communists, who in August 1991 again declared Azerbaijan's independence. Heydar Aliyev, the late president, then won the rigged elections of 1998. And when a general election (boycotted by most parties) was held in 2000, the New Azerbaijan Party, founded by Aliyev, predictably got most of the votes that were cast. In October 2003 Aliyev withdrew from the presidential poll because of health problems (he died in December 2003) and endorsed the campaign of his son, Ilham, who was elected. No wonder Azerbaijan is now in political turmoil similar to Kyrgyzstan's andTajikistan's.

Tajikistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Islamic-Democratic Alliance formed a government in September 1992, but civil war broke out as forces loyal to the former communist regime rebelled against the new government. By early November, pro-communist forces controlled almost all of the country, and the Supreme Soviet installed Emomaly Rakhmanov as its speaker and head of state. When a ceasefire in 1994 allowed presidential and parliamentary elections (generally boycotted) to be held, they were won by Rakhmanov and the ruling (former communist) People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan. Not unexpectedly, fighting was resumed the following year, but a peace agreement signed in 1996 held, and Rakhmanov was able to rig the presidential poll held in November 1999 to win more than 96 percent of the votes cast. Nor was it surprising that the ruling People's Democratic Party emerged as the winner in the parliamentary elections of 2000, while the Islamic Resistance Party gained only two seats.

In Kyrgyzstan – which is now in the headlines because of the opposition's campaign to overthrow the regime – the demise of the Soviet Union was followed by the election of president Akayev in 1990: he was the only post-communist Central Asian leader who had not previously been head of the local communist party. He was in fact considered a reasonably honest politician, not given to corrupt practices; but considering how he has manipulated presidential and parliamentary elections in the past fifteen years to retain power and to enable his own son and daughter to be elected to parliament, he seems to have become as crooked and dictatorial as the rest of the rulers of Central Asia. He rigged the presidential poll of 2000 and stayed on as president, and in February of this year he interfered in the parliamentary polls to prepare the basis for his unconstitutional re-election at the end of the year. Critics say that he wants the constitution to be amended so that he can stand for election again when his term of office expires, or wants to pave the way for the election of his son as president. Likepresident Husni Mubarak of Egypt, he insists that he will quit and that he has no plans for his son to succeed him. Like Mubarak, he too has the backing of the US.

But the people of Kyrgyzstan are not prepared to put up with him any longer. This explains why the opposition have taken over power in the south and are preparing to remove him from the northern districts and Bishkek, the capital. Unfortunately, the struggle is complicated by tribal and cultural divisions, and the country's unity could be dealt a serious blow. Similar complexities apply to both Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, and the region as a whole faces disintegration. Intervention by the US and Russia – principal architects of the problem – can only complicate matters. President Putin, the former KGB chief, and president George W. Bush, who is responsible for the deaths of many tens of thousands of Iraqis in the name of democracy – are useless for the safety and future of Central Asia's Muslims. They should stay out, and if necessary should be kept out forcibly.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 2

Safar 22, 14262005-04-01

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