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Analysis & Opinion
17.04.08 No Man’s Land
By Yelena Biberman

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Geneva Accords, a set of agreements that facilitated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Formally known as the Agreements on the Settlement of the Situation Relating to Afghanistan, the Accords allowed the Soviet Union to leave Afghanistan, which it had invaded ten years prior, without losing face.

“When we were leaving, we knew that Afghanistan would crumble if we didn’t take some important measures,” recalled Victor Korgun, Russia’s leading expert on Afghanistan at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Soviet Union, however, was too busy with its own domestic dilemmas, he explained. At that time, the Soviet Union itself was crumbling.

Surprisingly, today’s Russia appears to take little interest in Afghanistan. “We share some of the blame for what happened there since we left, but such was our fate; we had our own problems to deal with back then. I am just worried about today: when we have the opportunities, the money and the technology, we are not really doing anything to engage Afghanistan. There are some contracts that we started making with the Afghans, but these are just small steps,” said Kargun.

The expert added that the U.S. side appears to be blocking Russia’s access to “important strategic objects.” There are also false rumors being disseminated in Afghanistan that Russia plans to return its troops there.

In reality, Afghanistan is far from a priority for the Kremlin. For example, the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin himself stated on numerous occasions that Russia will forgive Afghanistan its $10.5 billion debt. “This declaration has not been followed by any concrete action. Debt forgiveness is a long and complicated process. The fact that Russia has not initiated it, after saying repeatedly that it would, at the very least aggravates the Afghans,” said Kargun.

The first person who mentioned debt forgiveness two years ago, former Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, is now in jail. This also does not instill much confidence in Russia’s reliability.

Given all this, Afghanistan’s good-will toward Russia is noticeably fading. There are now talks in the Afghan parliament about forcing Russia to pay reparations (from $20 billion to $100 billion) for the losses that Afghan people suffered during Soviet occupation. This measure, if passed, will certainly cost Russia much more – not just in terms of money, but also in terms of prestige, than it would actually going through with its debt forgiveness plan.

Kargun laments the changing attitude in Afghanistan toward Russia. Today, when he walks down the streets of Kabul, the elderly men immediately recognize that he is Russian and eagerly invite him in their homes for some tea. The young boys, however, wave to him, smile and cry out: “Hello, Mister!”
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