by Andrey Avetisyan

I often hear this question from my Afghan friends. If it is about peaceful and constructive involvement in rebuilding Afghanistan, strengthening its sovereignty my answer would be - yes, we are coming to help our good old friend and neighbor. But if it comes out of the fear that Russia may somehow become involved in Afghanistan militarily my answer would be equally strong no, a Russian soldier will never set his foot on the Afghan soil.

Exactly twenty two years ago the Soviet Army returned home after nine years of fighting in Afghanistan. For which or whose cause? There is no simple answer to it. But one thing is clear wrong perceptions of the Soviet rulers, terrible miscalculation of the situation, absolute misunderstanding of the country, its traditions and the sense of dignity of its people brought tragic consequences and a lot of suffering to both nations. One of the lessons from that war was that a better life or rather some peoples vision of it, can not be brought by force to other people who live and feel differently. It is even more true when we speak of the noble Afghan people.

The mujaheddin fought bravely for the freedom of their country. The Russians fought bravely because it is how a Russian soldier fights even when sent to war by irresponsible leaders. Talking now with veterans of that war on both sides, one can feel that they respected their enemy for this braveness. Mutual respect that is what helped the Russians and the Afghans mend fences after both countries lived through very significant changes and turbulent periods of their history.

And now this respect and friendly feelings that we have towards each other as well as centuries long tradition of cooperation and good neighborhood naturally bring Russia and Afghanistan together in our strive for better and peaceful life. The recent official visit of President Hamid Karzai to Moscow showed it bright and clear.

From one side we need each others help in fighting drugs and terrorism because it is Afghanistan and Russia who suffer most from these curses of modern time.

From another side we can enrich our religious and cultural exchanges. Let us not forget that Russia is a home for 20 million Muslims who have been living there in peace and accord with other communities for a thousand years. Rich Afghan culture is well known in our country. The Russian school of Pashto and Dari studies is probably the best outside Afghanistan. I would like to also mention the forthcoming exhibition of the Bactrian gold from the National Museum of Afghanistan. This important cultural event is greatly anticipated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The agreement on the new exhibition of this famous find of the Russian archeologists was reached during the Russian-Afghan Summit. In Kabul the reconstruction of the Russian Science and Culture Center will start soon.

And in between these two opposite sides of life e.g. terrorism and culture there is the third one - a great potential of economic cooperation. The new Trade and Economic Agreement between the Russian Federation and Afghanistan signed on January 21 in Moscow in the presence of President Karzai and President Medvedev widely opens the door for expanding this cooperation in every sphere possible.

Our priorities here lie within about 150 projects implemented in different time and in different parts of Afghanistan with the Russian help. Far beyond those nine years of war, during decades of friendly bilateral cooperation factories, plants, power stations, roads, irrigation systems, schools and universities were built throughout Afghanistan. These projects created the backbone of the Afghan economy. Here we must be fair to the USSR. Big and small good things done by its engineers, geologists, teachers, doctors are still remembered by the Afghans. Unfortunately now the majority of those projects remains destroyed or has been neglected for years and badly needs attention.

On the other hand, Russia still has the knowledge, the necessary expertise and experience needed to rebuild the Afghan economy. We have already agreed to start reconstructing and developing the Kabul House Building Factory to the capacity of 1 million sq. meters of modern living premises a year. The work is going to start very soon. Other infrastructure projects including the Salang Tunnel, the Fertilizers Factory in Mazar-i-Sharif, the Jalalabad Irrigation System will follow in cooperation with the Government of Afghanistan and other international donors.

Also the richest natural resources of Afghanistan discovered by our geologists are waiting to be exploited for the benefit of the Afghan people. At the hydro power plants in different provinces of Afghanistan the Russian language familiar to the local people is heard again because our engineers are back to help in bringing light and warmth to their homes. I believe that very soon Russia will also be contributing to the Afghan Government efforts to decrease the air pollution by supplying high quality petrol, diesel and motor oils. Besides, Russia is ready to participate in the financing and construction of important regional energy projects involving Afghanistan like power transmitting from Tajikistan to Pakistan (CASA-1000) and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (TAPI).

Very close and productive contacts have been established recently between the business communities of our two countries. About thirty prominent Afghan businessmen accompanied President Karzai during his official visit to Russia. The Afghan Business Center in Moscow is now actively promoting bilateral trade relations. And here is the good news for the Muscovites the famous KABUL department store will soon open its doors again stocked with Afghan dried fruits, carpets and other products that used to be so popular among the Russians.

The Russian policy towards Afghanistan is aimed at strengthening its sovereignty and independence. And it is obvious that in order to have a strong and well functioning government and viable economy Afghanistan needs a lot of specialists in different fields. But here I would like to say that from this point of view I feel confident for the future of this country because when visiting schools and universities in Kabul I see so many bright and talented boys and girls who are keen to learn, to get educated and serve their nation. We must give them more opportunities by supporting education in Afghanistan. To this end Russia will continue its traditional cooperation with a number of Afghan universities and technical schools.

Russian universities and other education institutions are open for Afghan students. Last year the number of students who got grants from the Government of the Russian Federation to study in different Russian universities exceeded one hundred. This year we hope to further increase it. May be not so many yet but this is only the beginning. I would like to also mention 225 Afghan police officers who begin their study in Russian police academies, because maintaining law and order is an important condition for stable and peaceful development of the country.

If we manage to implement together all these ideas, plans and projects, it will benefit both Afghanistan and Russia. But of course our main concern today is to help the Afghan people bring back peace, security and stability to their country. To let the Afghan people live the life they choose for themselves. Because they just know better. And this choice we must honor and respect.

Russia and Afghanistan may not share a common border these days but we are still neighbors, very close to each other, and I dare say, understanding each other better now, like the two old friends who may part, come through difficult times but keep thinking about each other and eventually get together again.

The author is the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Afghanistan