IF any part of the former Soviet Union needs closer ties to Russia, it is Central Asia. By quietly rebuilding its ties with this unstable, underdeveloped area, Moscow plays a constructive role in its future - a role the West should support. Despite the danger of imperialism, there exists the greater danger of overreacting to Russia's legitimate regional interests.
The most public sign of this region's courtship with Russia is the ruble zone agreement signed in early September by Russia and three Central Asian states - Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan - as well as by Armenia and Belarus. The accord will coordinate credit, banking, tax, and customs policies. These states follow the dictates of Russia's central bank, which controls the money supply.
A broader customs union, formed at a Sept. 24 Commonwealth of Independent States meeting in Moscow, allows free movement of property, products, and people. Future decisions about policies will be made by economically weighted votes; Russia's comparatively enormous economy gives it 70 percent of the ballot.
More significant are the cozy ties being established between Russian and Central Asian militaries, especially considering the Russian Army's growing political pull.
Note, for instance, Turkmenistan, which - thanks to its huge natural gas reserves - has remained aloof from the flurry of economic treaties. That independent line on economic affairs hardly matches the country's defense policy: While vowing not to join any international military alliances, Turkmenistan plans to set up joint Russian-Turkmen commands of its navy and air defense forces.
Similarly, in February Kazakhstan signed accords with Russia to coordinate border security and counterintelligence, among other areas, as a prelude to ``a joint defense space and combined use of military potential,'' as Russian president Boris Yeltsin and Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev said in a communique.
In Kyrgyzstan, a growing budget crisis threatens the independence of the Russian military there. Red Star, the Russian Army daily, suggests that officers in the Kyrgyz army prefer ``further integration ... with Russia and the other CIS states.''
Those moves come against the background of the Aug. 24 agreement between Russia, the Central Asian states, and Armenia to institute a common air-defense system and a collective security council.
Why should the US care? For reasons of trade and security. Central Asia sits atop enormous oil, natural gas, and mineral reserves. In the biggest deal yet, Chevron is drilling in Kazakhstan's Tenghiz oil field, one of the world's five largest.
But Moscow could shut Western firms out of future opportunities, especially if jealous nationalists start to resent the outsiders' commercial influence. Russian Vice Premier Alexander Shokhin recently demanded that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan ``choose between closer economic integration with Russia and with their southern neighbors,'' attacking the five states' recent admission to the Economic Cooperation Organization, a group founded by Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey.
Geopolitically, no one needs a series of weak states between Russia and the turbulent south; too many regional powers compete and too many weapons are available. The fighting in Tajikistan illustrates what happens when a shaky government, fearing foreign subversion, cracks down on its citizens and sparks off civil war: Over 20,000 people are dead, more than 500,000 are refugees, and Russian soldiers are again battling Afghan guerrillas, now allied with Tajik rebels.
But civil peace outside of Tajikistan hardly guarantees stability, since ethnic Russians run most Central Asian industries, thanks to discriminatory Soviet staffing. As Kasakhstan's President Nazarbayev has observed, this professional talent pool has already begun trickling back to Russia; only a secure regional environment can keep this flow at manageable levels.
WHAT, then, is to be done? The West should encourage constructive cooperation between Moscow and the new Central Asian states. Free-trade accords that reunite Soviet-era markets but allow Western investment and trade should not cause any alarm (Central Asia's commerce is already overwhelmingly Russocentric); nor should Russian military assistance that makes Central Asians feel more secure. But if Moscow fails to use its influence to encourage sorely-needed reforms, the West should make its disapproval clear, as it has begun to do in Tajikistan.
Beyond that, though, the West lacks the leverage to push for more dramatic changes. Washington certainly should urge political and market reforms, but diplomacy is its only persuasive tool. Financial aid yields little clout: Turkey, which shares a common ethnic heritage and has given $1.2 billion in aid to Central Asia and Azerbaijan over the last three years, still finds that its influence is fading.
The West must resist the temptation to talk tough about Russian neocolonialism, despite the occasional brazen Russian proclamation of regional supremacy. That would only generate a vicious nationalist backlash and would miss the point anyway: These states' delicate ethnic mixtures, weak economies, and traditional ties to Russia dictate their choice.
If close ties with Russia enhance Central Asia's security and accelerate its development, the West should have no quarrels. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.