Judging from news reports, Wednesday’s meeting in Sochi between the presidents of Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan was a low-key affair, unlikely to result in any major breakthroughs.
As had been expected, the talks focused on reconciliation in Afghanistan, the war on terrorism, and efforts to combat drug trafficking. These are highly sensitive issues. Small wonder, therefore, that the news media were quite cautious in their coverage, letting only the occasional morsel of information trickle through.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon was reported as having suggested they sign a multilateral treaty on counter-terrorism. Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev reportedly proposed a revival of economic projects launched back in the Soviet era, primarily concerning the energy sector and social development. Afghan leader Hamid Karzai welcomed in Pakistani refugees who have fled their homes to escape the floods in their country. He also expressed his sympathy for the people left homeless as a result of wildfires in Russia as well, but stopped short of offering them a shelter in his country (which would have been interesting). Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, for his part, invited Medvedev to visit Pakistan.
Well, as always, we’ll probably get a clearer picture further down the line. At this point, we can only guess whether the proposed counter-terrorism deal is likely to be followed by any concrete steps, and whether the CASA 1000 project, presented at the first such four-party meeting, held in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe last year, has made any headway. The half-a-billion-dollar project envisages Russian investments in hydro-electric power plants in Tajikistan and electricity supplies from Tajikistan to Pakistan, via Afghanistan.
Other points in need of clarification include the four leaders’ take on the supply of 100 Russian transport helicopters to Afghanistan, and how the presidents of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan perceive Russia’s proposal of using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help maintain stability in the region. Nonetheless, these questions give a general picture of the kind of questions that must have arisen during this meeting of the “Dushanbe quartet” in Sochi.
One thing is already apparent however, and that is Russia’s radical policy-shift towards Central and South Asia, motivated by the idea of coping more effectively with the ever-changing challenges that currently face this volatile region and the rest of the world.
A meeting like the one that took place in Sochi would have been impossible in the Cold War era. The United States was then busy creating, in cooperation with Pakistan, a counterweight to Soviet influence in Afghanistan. As a result of those efforts, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda emerged right by the Soviet Union’s southern borders, near Tajikistan.
Remembering what life was like under the Taliban, who incidentally owed their victory to the United States, the West as a whole, and to Pakistan, is painful. But transcripts of some intercepted internal Taliban conversations published in the Russian press exist as a reminder of how the movement’s leaders garnered support in villages, stockpiled weapons… And we’re talking here about villages in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States, Washington launched its anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Moscow wholeheartedly supported that war. But an Iron Curtain was still in place, as in the 80’s, barring the Russians from any involvement in the post-Taliban reconstruction of Afghanistan.
It is now clear that the U.S. neo-Conservatives, led by George W. Bush, had several goals in mind when they sent their troops into Afghanistan. They sought to rid it and neighboring Pakistan of Islamic extremists, then make countries in Central Asia, such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and even Kazakhstan, part of their sphere of geopolitical influence, with regime change where possible, and in doing so – push Russia and China back. Hardly surprising therefore that they turned down all offers of assistance from the SCO and the CSTO.
Russia responded with a flare-up of diplomatic activity in Central Asia, working hard to consolidate its relations with former Soviet states as well as with China. As a result, in part thanks to Bush, Russian and Chinese interests coincided, and the SCO evolved into a powerful regional security organization.
President Bush’s ambitions for Central Asia eventually faltered over a lack of resources. He got bogged down in Iraq, failed to crush Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, and ratcheted up the tension with Iran. His successor in the White House, Barack Obama, looks set to make a U-turn on U.S. policy in the region. This looks set to include a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan as soon as next year, although experts, especially military analysts, do not believe this will happen.
The situation is complicated by the fact that these new policies, on both the American and Russian sides, are very much a “work in progress” at this point. Moscow is not going to wait until the United States has formulated its policy. Russia must go ahead and develop its diplomatic policy towards those areas south of its former Soviet borders.
First, on Tajikistan’s initiative, came the meeting a year ago in Dushanbe, then this year’s meeting in Sochi.
This may be just an outline of Russia’s new borders in international politics in this crucial region, but it does give quite a clear picture. Moscow does not want to fight either the United States or Europe over spheres of influence in the region. It is seeking ways to cooperate with its former adversaries. Sochi is a part of that process.
RIA Novosti political commentator Dmitry Kosyrev
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.