Just as France maintained links with its former colonies in Central Africa, Moscow has maintained ties with the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. In light of the recent violence in its backyard nation of Kyrgyzstan, what lessons can Russia learn from France?s experience in Central Africa?
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 history.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.