Post-Soviet conflicts and borders from Central Asia to the Caucasus, with former ambassador, Richard Lewington

Richard Lewington, ex HM Ambassador to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with over 40 years of service as a British diplomat speaks on the collapse of the Soviet Union and its consequences

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The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 finally consigned Marxism and Leninism to the “ash heap of history”. But old tensions and hatreds soon flared up between Russia and its former vassal states.

Across the Caucasus, newly independent nations grappled with break-up from within. Ethnic minorities fought each other for control and their own independence. Breakaway regions have proliferated. The annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the recent stationing of Russian missiles on the borders of Poland and the Baltic republics are all part of the post-Soviet inheritance.

In Central Asia, the 5 ‘stans’ - from the vast, fabulously oil-rich Kazakhstan to the mountainous poverty of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - were totally unprepared for the statehood thrust upon them. They were ill-equipped to control or manage their new borders, which ignore geography and cut across traditional communities and trade routes.

The drugs trade, from Afghanistan to Europe through Central Asia, has added to the challenges. Through its EU membership, the UK stepped into the breach. The EU devised an ambitious plan to help the five new republics to develop modern border management practice - the flagship of its Central Asian political strategy - providing expertise, training, equipment and modern facilities. Has it been successful?

In 2008 a bitter 5 day war raged between Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia and its Russian allies. The EU negotiated a ceasefire, and set up an unarmed, civilian ceasefire monitoring mission, with soldiers, police officers and diplomats from all EU Member States, to patrol the disputed border and keep the fragile peace. The mission operates to this day, 24/7 and 365 days a year.

In the Caucasus, as in Central Asia, these disputed borders of the post-Soviet world cause tension, mayhem and conflict. Richard Lewington has worked for a decade behind the Iron Curtain and in the FSU, and will examine this dangerous legacy from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Richard Lewington

Richard was a diplomat for four decades. He joined the Diplomatic Service in 1967 at 19. After Russian language training with the British Army, he and his French wife were posted to Ulaan Baatar in Outer Mongolia, probably the most remote capital city in the world both then and now, and Britain’s most isolated embassy.

Over the next 39 years assignments followed in Peru, the Soviet Union, Israel (during the first Palestinian intifada), Malta, and as HM Ambassador, to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and finally Ecuador (where he smugly says he managed to visit the Galapagos Islands 6 times over 3 years).

After retirement in 2006 Richard went back to Central Asia. He lived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, from 2007-2009 as a technical and diplomatic adviser on the EU’s border management programme in Central Asia. He frequently travelled into the powder-keg Fergana Valley; deep into the remote Pamir Mountains along the Tajik-Afghan border; the fabled Wakhan Corridor, and more than once crossed into northern Afghanistan without passport or visa.

From 2011-2012 he joined the civilian, unarmed EU ceasefire monitoring mission in Georgia, working alongside police officers, soldiers and human rights experts from 27 EU member states, patrolling the 2008 ceasefire line 24/7 in armour-plated hard skin vehicles under the daily gaze of armed Russian border guards.

He now lives in the West Country, a stone’s throw from the Somerset border, and frequently visits family near Aller.

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2017Martin Keeley