Russia says Kabul situation 'stabilising', claims Taleban 'restoring public order'

Unlike Western countries, Russia has said its embassy in Kabul will stay open. PHOTO: EMBASSY OF RUSSIA IN AFGHANISTAN/FACEBOOK

MOSCOW (AFP) - The Russian foreign ministry said Monday (Aug 16) the situation in Kabul "is stabilising" after the Afghan capital fell to the Taleban this weekend and claimed that the militants have started to "restore public order".

Russia, whose ambassador is due to meet with the Taleban Tuesday, claimed the militants had vowed to "guarantee the safety of local people", despite thousands of Afghans trying to flee the group's hardline version of Islam.

In the statement, Moscow confirmed it had "established working contacts with representatives of the new authorities".

Russia's ambassador in Kabul is due to meet with the Taleban on Tuesday, the country said earlier.

Unlike Western countries - which scrambled to get their diplomats out of the country as the Taleban completed its military takeover of the country this weekend - Russia has said its embassy in Kabul will stay open.

Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov told Russian state media that the Taleban had already started to guard his embassy.

Foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said Monday that Russia would decide on recognising the new Taleban government based "on the conduct of the new authorities".

Russia will take part in an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan due later Monday.

The Kremlin has in recent years reached out to the Taleban and hosted its representatives in Moscow several times, most recently last month.

'Not an enemy' any more: Why Russia is courting the Taleban

Despite the hardline Islamist group tracing its origins back to the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, Russia's view on the group now is pragmatic.

Analysts say the Kremlin wants to protect its interests in Central Asia, where it has several military bases, and is keen to avoid instability and potential terrorism spreading through a region on its doorstep.

The militants had assured the Russians that "not a single hair will fall from the heads" of their diplomats, said Zhirnov.

This is a stark contrast to the last time hardliners came to power in Afghanistan in 1992, when Moscow struggled to evacuate its embassy under fire after a disastrous decade-long war.

Three decades later, the Kremlin has boosted the Taleban's international credibility by hosting it several times for talks in Moscow - despite the movement being a banned terrorist organisation in Russia.

Sovereignty vs security

The aim of these talks, say analysts, is to stop the conflict from spilling into neighbouring countries and a terrorism spike in its Central Asian neighbours, where Russia maintains military bases.

"If we want there to be peace in Central Asia, we need to talk to the Taleban," said Nikolai Bordyuzha, the former secretary general of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). He commended the Russian embassy for staying open.

The Taleban has moved to reassure its northern neighbours that it has no designs on them, despite several Central Asian countries having offered logistical support to Washington's war effort.

Ambassador Zhirnov suggested the Taleban had also given Moscow assurances.

He said Russia wanted Afghanistan to have peaceful relations with "all the countries in the world" and that "the Taleban had already promised us" this.

But Russia's foreign ministry has suggested it will not rush into a close relationship with a Taleban government, saying it would monitor the group's conduct before deciding on recognition.

And as the Taleban advanced through Afghanistan this summer, Russia staged war games with allies Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on the Afghan border in a show of force.

Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov said Moscow would now look to strengthen its military presence in the region.

"To different extents, these countries will be obliged to accept Moscow's help, but none will want to exchange their sovereignty for their security," he said.

He stressed that Afghanistan's three Central Asian neighbours - Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan - have different approaches to the conflict.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan held high-level talks with the Taleban and are likely to recognise Taleban rule, while Tajikistan has not engaged with the militants.

Years of courting

Russia's dialogue with the Taleban is the fruit of several years of courting.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in July described the Taleban as a "powerful force", and blamed the Afghan government for faltering progress in talks.

"It is not for nothing that we have been establishing contacts with the Taleban movement for the last seven years," the Kremlin's Afghanistan envoy, Zamir Kabulov, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station on Monday.

This relationship has raised many eyebrows, given that the Taleban has its roots in the anti-Soviet Mujahideen movement from the 1980s.

But Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Russia now believed the Taleban have changed since the last time it was in power in the 1990s when it gave shelter to Al-Qaeda.

"Moscow does not see this version of the Mujahideen as its enemy," he told AFP.

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