Staunton, January 12 – Both the tsarist and Soviet armies had at various points units consisting of Muslim soldiers, and these units fought well. But if Moscow allows Central Asians to serve in the Russian army and even forms “Muslim battalions,” it is far from clear whether these units would be willing to fight for Russia.
That is the judgment of Erik Khanymamedov, a Turkmen journalist who lives and works in the Russian city of Volgograd, concerning Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to allow foreigners who know Russian – many of whom might come from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia – to serve in the Russian military.
He points to the hysterical reaction of many “hurrah patriots” to Putin’s decision, some of whom suggested this was the beginning of the end and that the Central Asians would take the skills and weapons they acquired from the Russian army and then use them against Russia and the Russians.
Indeed, if one listened to them, one would imagine that Putin’s order would lead to “hordes of bearded Islamists” appearing at Russian military commissions eager to somehow get into the Russian army. But before one gets carried away with such notions, Khanymamedov says, one ought to do some serious reflections about just how things are.
On the one hand, he says, it is not clear “whose interests the army of post-Soviet Russia is defending.” And on the other, in that army, “a new generation of Russians has come to serve for whom the term Soviet internationalism is an empty sound: they hear the sound but no one is especially sure what it signifies.”
For these Russian soldiers, the current Russian government is viewed positively in large measure only to the extent that it promotes a nationalist agenda and thus “wins political popularity among the titular ethnos of the country.” Given that, he says, it seems hard to believe that Central Asians would be rushing to join an institution where they would not be welcome.
In Soviet times, internationalism was more influential, and people could become a “Russian” version of their own nation. That was the case with Stalin who “was able to rise above his ethnic membership and be a Russian Georgian.” But how many people are there like that at the present time?
What is certain, the journalist continues is that “the armies of post-Soviet Russia and of the Soviet Union are two different armies, and the bases of uniting warriors of various nationalities in them are also different. How things were in the Soviet army, we know. The mechanism worked possibly not without shortcomings.”
“How this will work in the Russian army, no one yet knows,” Khanymamedov says.
With regard to the possible entrance of Central Asians into the Russian army now, the first question is “are they foreigners?” “Now, they are de jure, but not de facto. Their grandfathers and fathers defended the Soviet Union” and made an indisputable contribution to victory.
Tensions are rising along the Central Asian-Afghan border and one needs to ask whether and how a Russian army with or without Central Asians might be asked to respond. There is a huge problem: it is said that the forces of the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty didn’t intervene in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 was because “the Slavs simply were not in a position to distinguish who was who” in the conflict.
Khanymamedov says he can confirm that this is the case from his own personal experiences. Many of his friends think he is a Kyrgyz when in fact he is a Turkmen, and at least one who does so worked in the North Caucasus and should have known better. But that hardly ends the problem.
Consider the attitudes of Russians to gastarbeiters from Central Asia, he continues. How will a Central Asian soldier view a Russian soldier? According to the journalist, he fears that that view won’t be positive. And “what kind of soldiers will they be” if they are constantly reminded of their subordinate and despised status.
And that leads to the most important question of all: “if in the Russian army, supporters of a mono-national Russia and Central Asians from ‘a Russian foreign legion’ come into contact” and into conflict, then what? Or is Moscow planning to keep these new legions somehow separate “from ‘native’ soldiers of the Russian army?”
“The Muslim battalions of the USSR knew for what they were going into harm’s way,” Khanymamedov says. “But for what will the Muslim battalions of the New Russia go there – or will they go at all?”