As it contemplates the violence that has claimed the lives of well over
a hundred people in its backyard nation of Kyrgyzstan, Russia should look to
France’s experience in Central Africa for lessons. There are distinct
parallels. Just as Paris maintained strong links with its former colonies
across Africa, Russia has maintained its with the governments of former Soviet
Republics in Central Asia. But just as Paris lost so much traction when Rwanda
ignited in 1994, wrong moves in Kyrgyzstan might alter those treasured links
between Moscow and Central Asia for good.
Since subjugating Central Asia in the 1920s, Moscow has sought to fulfil
the same kind of role in Central Asia that France once exercised in Francophone
Africa – to be at the centre of an unofficial empire built on patronage,
migration, history and corruption, as much as force. As the Soviet Union came
and went, the end of the Cold War did little to alter this state of affairs. Central
Asian leaders travel to Moscow, much as West African leaders once journeyed to Paris.
President Omar Bongo once said of his country’s relationship with its
former colonial power France: “Gabon without France is like a car with no
driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel.” Much the same can be
said of the links between Russia and several Central Asian states – literally. Central
Asian gas forms the bulk of Gazprom’s European exports, and Russia’s energy
conglomerates have been used as diplomatic advanced-guards for Moscow, echoing
Paris’ use of Elf Aquitaine.
The parallels go further. France used ‘la Françafrique’, a special
network consisting of politicians, state officials, military officers, heads of
oil and weapons firms and African leaders. Russian elites retain close ties to
Central Asian elites, with most having risen to power through the Soviet elite.
The fear of competition from other powers is also similar. While France
feared British competition in francophone Africa, Russia has worked hard, with
similarly mixed results, to exclude the United States and China from
establishing a diplomatic, commercial and military presence in Central Asia.
Many experts interpreted Russia’s assault on Georgia in 2008 as intended to
keep the United States and NATO out of its backyard in Central Asia.
For years Russia’s presence benefited both the illiberal elites in
Central Asia and Russia’s post-Soviet rulers. The former gained patronage and
military support, the latter access to energy and migrants to make up for
Russia’s demographic decline. But now, like France’s experience in the face of
the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the violence in Kyrgyzstan – which has already
killed 170 people and sent almost 100,000 refugees on to the roads – is the
event that might change the game.
More than twenty years ago, France’s Rwanda policy failed to prevent and
then stop a genocide perpetrated by a long-standing client, the Hutu-dominated
government in Kigali. In a repetition of
the choices facing France’s leaders in the spring of
1994, following the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana,
which set off the killings, Russia’s duumvirate of Vladimir Putin and Dimitri
Medvedev are deciding whether to intervene in Kyrgyzstan and how to do so. The
comparison is not perfect; though France backed Habyarimana’s rule, Russia
seems to have helped to oust Kyrgyzstan President’s Kurmanbek Bakiyev and there
is no suggestion Moscow has played a part in the developing violence.
So far, Moscow has been cautious. Officials of the Russian-dominated
Collective Security Treaty Organization, said it would support Kyrgyzstan’s
government with equipment, including helicopters, to help transport troops to
the strife-affected region. But Russia has so far shied away from sending
troops to do anything else than protect its military installations.
Three lessons stand out from the Rwanda case. First, waiting to
intervene militarily to end violence is likely to make the situation worse –
while the demand for an intervention is unlikely to die down. Second, failure
to intervene will not only lead to countless deaths, but will most likely
change Russia’s relationship with Central Asia for the worse, much as France’s
Rwanda policy significantly affected the country’s credibility in Africa.
Third, a partial and indirect intervention – for example to protect clients or
installations – will sooner or later be seen for what it is: self-serving and
worthy of resentment.
But there is a fourth altogether more positive lesson. If Russia asks
the UN Security Council to authorise an intervention, which can be led by
Russia but supported with troops from the United States, Europe and China, not only
will the violence be quelled, but – if this is not motivation enough for the
Kremlin – such an initiative will help guarantee Russia’s role in Central Asia
and may even change the way many US and European policy-makers see Russia’s
post-Cold War role.
History is an imperfect guide for policy-makers. But rarely have there
been two situations as uncannily similar as France’s predicament in francophone
Africa 1994, when the Rwanda genocide began, and Russia’s choice in the face of
Kyrgyzstan’s violence. Hopefully, Russia’s leaders will learn from France’s tortuous
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