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Russians Fear US Will be in Central Asia for 'A Long Time' - 2002-01-15

Central Asia has long been considered part of Russia's backyard. So last week when the United States said it was building up a base in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzystan for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, there were many Russians who feared their territory was being taken over by American soldiers.

The presence of American military forces in regions where the Red Army once protected the former Soviet Union does not sit well with many in today's Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went against the wishes of many when he gave his support to the war against international terrorism by allowing the U.S. to use Central Asian bases to strike targets in Afghanistan.

Following the September 11 attacks against the United States, Washington has sent troops to the former Soviet Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Last week, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev said that the former Soviet republic might consider extending a one-year agreement allowing a U.S. military base in the country.

For many Russians, it was not welcome news because they fear that the United States might be in Central Asia for a long time. They also fear that the U.S. might become an unwanted guest and might even try to replace Moscow as the most important influence in the region.

While on a trip to Tajikistan, which borders northern Afghanistan, the speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, Gennady Seleznyov, criticized the United States for basing troops in Central Asia. Mr. Seleznyov said these countries belong to Russia's sphere of influence.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst in Moscow. He says that feeling is shared with many in Russia.

"For many in Russian military and political elite, this is seen as a sort part of the zero-sum games of - if American influences rises in a region that was part of the Soviet Union and Russia still considers [it] part of its backyard, [then] what's good for America is bad for Russia," he said.

Many of the former Soviet Central Asian countries are dotted with military outposts that are still controlled by Moscow. Some of Russia's most sensitive military and civilian satellites are sent into space from the Baikonur launch pad in Kazakhstan. Lake Issykul in Kyrgyzystan is used to test Russian naval weapons. There are also about 12,000 Russian troops in Tajikistan to guard the border with Afghanistan.

Despite the warming relationship between Russia and the United States after September 11, Mr. Felgenhauer explains that having U.S. troops where they potentially can spy on the Russian military causes unease in Moscow.

"American military presence there would be seen by the Russian military as sort of them gathering information not so much about Osama bin laden but about Russian military activities," he says.

But diplomatic observers say there is another reason to explain the reluctance to welcome American troops in Central Asia. That reason is pride.

Viktor Kremenyuk is the deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow. He says many Russians have not accepted that their country does not have the resources to play a strong role in Central Asia. "I think that the fact that the Americans have come and it looks as if the Americans are going to stay for some time is regarded as something like a challenge to the Russian rule. Not maybe necessarily a threat, simply a challenge, disregard, humiliation," he says.

Mr. Kremenyuk says many in Russia would prefer the United States to stay out of the region altogether. But he says Russia simply does not have the financial resources to provide the stability needed in Central Asia.

While this is the view of many in the Russian military and political elite, many analysts say it is not shared by President Putin.

Some observers believe he realized from the beginning that any U.S. stay in Central Asia would be a long one. Now, they say, the Russian president needs to convince people in Russia that the U.S. presence in Central Asia does not provide a threat to Russia's interests.