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Russia Tries To Control Former Soviet Central Asia

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Russia is taking steps to reassert its influence in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and in the process, it's posing a challenge to American interests there. Moscow is pushing for military cooperation and offering financial aid, moves that are reminiscent of the Kremlin's client-state relationships during the Cold War. NPR's Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: One of the top priorities of Mr. Obama's presidency will be to dramatically increase American troop levels in Afghanistan. Those forces rely heavily on an air base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan for their supplies. So Washington wasn't pleased by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announcement on Tuesday.

President KURMANBEK BAKIYEV (Kyrgyzstan): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Bakiyev said the former Soviet Republic would close the Manas Air Base to U.S. forces. U.S. officials insist negotiations are continuing, and the Kyrgyz parliament has delayed a vote for at least a week. But Bakiyev indicated Washington wasn't willing to pay Kyrgyzstan enough. As much as his threat, it was where Bakiyev made his announcement that raised eyebrows: in Moscow, sitting next to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

President DMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Afterward, Medvedev announced Russia was giving Kyrgyzstan $150 million in aid on top of a $2 billion loan. Russia has portrayed itself as an ally in the war on terror. Moscow agreed to U.S. bases in Central Asia after September 11th, but says it always expected they would be temporary. Now the Kremlin is moving to reestablish control over what it sees as its sphere of influence in former Soviet Central Asia. Yesterday, at a summit of an organization that includes Central Asian countries, as well as Belarus and Armenia, Medvedev announced the establishment of a military rapid reaction force.

Pres. MEDVEDEV: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Medvedev said the force would be equipped as well as NATO troops. The same day, Medvedev said Russia would finance a $10 billion financial crisis fund for five former Soviet republics. The Kremlin's largesse stands in stark contrast to its treatment of two other former Soviet republics: pro-Western Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia invaded last summer, plunging relations with the West to Cold War levels.

Political analyst Kirill Rogov says Russia's latest moves in Central Asia are an attempt to stake out its position to an administration in Washington that's barely taken office.

Mr. KIRILL ROGOV (Political Analyst): (Through Translator) Moscow is stating its principles that the former Soviet republics are Russia's sphere of influence. The Kremlin failed to give the Bush administration to agree to that, and relations turned sour. Now it's trying with Mr. Obama.

FEIFER: For those who had hoped U.S.-Russia relations would improve under Mr. Obama, Moscow's actions couldn't have come at a worse time. Analysts say it also contradicts Russia's own deep interest in seeing U.S. forces succeed against the Taliban, which could pose a serious threat to Russia's south. But Rogov says it's far from clear how successful Russia will be in a region that tries to play Washington and Moscow off against each other.

Mr. ROGOV: (Through Translator) Central Asian countries want to diversify their relations. They know the dangers of relying too heavily on Russia.

FEIFER: Now neighboring Uzbekistan has indicated it may receptive to reopening a U.S. base there.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.
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