Sep 21, 2010 | 11:19 GMT

5 mins read

Russia's Ambitions for the Fergana Valley

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The Tajik government on Monday launched a major military operation to hunt down the militants that killed around 40 Tajik troops on Sunday in the Rasht Valley of eastern Tajikistan. The Rasht Valley became a focal point of the country's security forces after more than two dozen high-profile Islamist militants broke out of a Dushanbe jail and fled to the Rasht Valley to seek refuge. In a less-publicized event, Russian and Kyrgyz defense officials met over a new military agreement that could see Russia expand its military presence in Kyrgyzstan in exchange for arms and cash. These two events, while seemingly unrelated, in fact have two very important things in common. The first is that they were located in close proximity to the Fergana Valley, the most populous and strategic area of Central Asia. The second is that they are closely connected to Russian efforts to expand and consolidate its influence in the Central Asia region. Central Asia is not blessed by geography. Riddled with harsh deserts, treeless steppes and large mountains, there is little land that can sustain sizable populations or any meaningful economic development. The one exception to this rule is the Fergana Valley, which features fertile agricultural land and a relatively developed industrial sector and is inhabited by nearly 30 million people — roughly half of all of Central Asia's population in a small fraction of the land area. With all its geographic and security challenges, Central Asia remains a key area of interest to Russia. If a single state controlled the Fergana Valley, its demographic and economic size could make it a political and military force to be reckoned with in the region. Instead, it is split between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — a result of some very crafty cartography by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Stalin was quite aware of the threat that a unified country in this region could pose to Russia: He carved up the area between these states, drawing their borders specifically to foster regional tensions between the ethnic Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajiks — tensions Moscow could exploit. But Central Asia was no easy area for the Soviet Union to control, no matter the political borders. Surrounding the Fergana Valley are the Tian Shen Mountains, and scattered throughout them are peoples who are particularly hostile to central authority from Moscow. It was only through tremendous military and security resources that the Soviet Union was able to pull these countries into its orbit to establish a buffer within the Tian Shen from powers in South and East Asia. With many common geographic and demographic features, one of the only major differences between Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the modern context is the legacy of roughly 70 years of Soviet rule. It should come as little surprise then that, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the stability of the Fergana Valley collapsed along with it. Tajikistan plunged into a civil war that was by no means limited to its borders, encroaching into neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and Islamist militant groups spread throughout the region. These countries eventually stabilized after several years, but only under authoritarian leaders was each newly independent state able to fill the vacuum left by the all-encompassing Soviet political and security apparatus. These rulers forged their own alliances, some regionally, some with Islamist militants and some with the West, as Russia was forced into a geopolitical retreat. Over the past few years, however, Russia has been resurging throughout its former Soviet periphery, including Central Asia. This resurgence has been particularly pronounced in Kyrgyzstan, which after succumbing to the pro-Western Tulip revolution in 2005, witnessed its own Russian-supported revolution in April. While this has once again fostered instability in Kyrgyzstan, it has created a government and society that is quite dependent and loyal to Moscow and only asking for Russia to increase its presence — as shown by the military talks between the two countries. And just as Tajikistan is beginning to experience an uptick of violence of its own, Russia is beginning to increase its military presence in the country as well. Russia has already expanded the use of airfields and radar bases in Tajikistan and is currently engaged in talks with the Tajik government to redeploy the Russian Border Guard Service, akin to the Soviet era, to the Tajik-Afghan border. According to STRATFOR sources, this is only the beginning of a deployment by the Russian military to Tajikistan — in addition to Kyrgyzstan — that could number into tens of thousands of troops. With all its geographic and security challenges, Central Asia remains a key area of interest to Russia. While Russia continues to expand its influence, this resurgence will only satisfy Moscow until it reaches a point in which it can anchor itself in the Tian Shen mountains — meaning Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But with these countries come inherent challenges that will not be easy for Moscow to overcome, even with multiple divisions of troops.

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