MOSCOW (Reuters) - Signs in Dari decorate the creaky lifts of a Moscow hotel heaving with Afghan merchants and schoolchildren who have found refuge in a former foe.
Although still haunted by the decade-long war in which 15,000 Soviet troops were killed, Russia has renewed interest in Afghanistan, quietly allowing the local Afghan community to thrive as a gesture of goodwill.
“The Russians now welcome us. It is not like before,” said Ghulam Jalal, who heads the Center for Afghan Diasporas, an organization that finds work for Afghans in Russia and keeps their culture and languages alive.
Worried by intensifying violence in the NATO-led war against Taliban insurgents, Russia is flexing its muscles by proposing business and development plans in Afghanistan, which borders much of ex-Soviet Central Asia, viewed by Russia as its traditional sphere of influence.
Afghans in Russia now make up the third-largest overseas Afghan community after Pakistan and Iran, and the largest community of immigrants from a country other than the former Soviet Union.
Very few of the 150,000 Afghans in Russia — a third in the capital — are in the country illegally, said Omar Nessar, director of the Center for Studies of Modern Afghanistan in Moscow, in what he called a kind of a “gift”.
“Over the years, you will see that few have remained with an illegal status. I suppose it is a gift,” Nessar said.
Russia’s Federal Migration Service declined to comment, but a former lawmaker in Kabul agreed Russia has welcomed the influx of Afghans fleeing a succession of wars as it seeks greater influence in their country.
“No one wants an uninvited guest in their country. There is a political connection here. Russia wants to reassert its role that it is a friend of the Afghan people and can be trusted,” said Noor-ul Haq Olomi, who recently stepped down from Afghan parliament after six years to work on his own political party.
Russia’s interest and quest for stability in Afghanistan stems from a fear of the spreading insurgent activity and the steady flow of heroin from Afghanistan.
Though Moscow has refused to send troops to the current war, it has embarked on a series of infrastructure and hydroelectric projects and wants to build housing, Russia’s envoy to Kabul Andrey Avetisyan told Reuters.
The Afghan-Russian relationship is at its best in 20 years, he said.
Jalal’s plush office is nestled in the cluster of grey towers making up the Sevastopol hotel in southern Moscow where 8,000 Afghans live and work. They have their own mosque, television station and weekly newspapers.
An on-site school teaches children Afghanistan’s two main languages, Dari and Pashto, while adults learn Russian.
Refugees sell Chinese-made gadgets and fluffy toys out of a thousand converted hotel rooms and the smell of freshly baked Afghan bread permeates the shops, which are packed with Russians seeking bargains.
Their channel “Afghan TV” blasts out songs in Pashto.
Nahim, from the western city of Herat, says Russia saved him from a life of misery in Afghanistan, where civilians are bearing the brunt of a war that has dragged on for 10 years since U.S. forces first attacked the Taliban for sheltering al Qaeda after September 11.
The current conflict is the latest chapter in a brutal recent history: after the Soviet exit in 1989, the Afghan communist government collapsed, leading to fighting between warlords and paving the way for the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996. Millions of people are believed to have been killed and millions fled.
Nessar, from the Moscow thinktank, said Afghans have been steadily flowing into Russia throughout the last three decades.
Nahim, who gave only his first name, left Afghanistan with his brother in 1998, one of many Afghans to flee the oppressive Islamist Taliban regime.
Now 30, he returned briefly four years ago but said he was discouraged from staying by what he saw there.
“We are witnessing first-hand what the Americans are doing there, how they act without a heart,” said Nahim, dressed in jeans and leather sandals in his shop, where he sells mosquito repellent, key chains and batteries.
“The Taliban could return, and even if they are less violent than before, I will not go back,” he said in fluent Russian.
Reports have intensified of talks between the Taliban and Western and Afghan officials that aim for a negotiated peace — and a possible role for the Taliban in government — as the United States and its NATO allies prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.
The country is increasingly dangerous: U.N. figures show 1,462 Afghan civilians were killed in conflict-related incidents in the first six months of 2011, a record amount since the start of the war. The United Nations blamed insurgents for 80 percent of those civilian casualties.
NATO plans to hand over all security responsibilities to the Afghans in a transition that began in some areas in July, and many Afghans fear the violence will not abate.
“We thought of going back, but we reconsidered,” said Mohammad, 12, who studies at the local school and works in his parents’ electronics shop. “I have never seen my homeland and I don’t want to. It’s dreadful there”.
Sporting a bushy black mustache and speaking fluent Russian, Jalal, the head of the Centre for Afghan Diasporas, gestured to framed pictures of him shaking the hands of local officials and Afghan representatives.
Like many Afghans from the country’s elite, Jalal studied in the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan. He became governor of the northeastern Kunar province before fleeing to Russia during the civil war 18 years ago.
He said he regularly meets Russian officials to boost cooperation.
“We came as refugees, to save our children. But we ended up staying and will help more who want to come,” Jalal said.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall