Russia eyes rebirth in classrooms of former foe Afghanistan

KABUL, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Russian culture and language are

making a surprising comeback in Afghanistan, where the Soviets

fought a disastrous decade-long war, as Moscow vies to regain

influence ahead of the planned withdrawal of foreign troops.

Bulldozers are clearing the way for a sparkling Russian

cultural centre in Kabul, to replace its behemoth, Soviet-era

predecessor which for many came to symbolise Moscow's war and

its humiliating 1989 defeat that cost 15,000 Soviet lives.

"We are here in the region, and we will be in the future.

And to have good, friendly, neighbourly relations you must have

some cultural component to it," Russia's envoy to Kabul, Andrey

Avetisyan, told Reuters of the decision to rebuild the centre.

Moscow fears the exit of most NATO-led troops by the end of

2014 will lead to a dangerous power vacuum south of ex-Soviet

Central Asia's borders, threatening its own security and

allowing for a larger influx of heroin.

The new centre will teach Russian language, singing, dancing

and handicrafts and will boast a concert hall, similar to the

one built in 1983.

Its rebuild is reminiscent of Soviet influence in

Afghanistan before the 1979 invasion, when they heavily

supported education and the arts.

It also coincides with renewed interest by Afghans in the

Russian language, who see it as increasingly useful in their

country's changing landscape amid the emergence of new regional

powers.

"Demand for the Russian language is growing. It is more

widely spoken in Afghanistan than five years ago," Avetisyan

said, adding: "Foreign advisers and experts are not going to be

here forever. NATO, the European Union, they will all go".

When asked when it would open, he chuckled and said:

"Everything is about the year 2014".

The centre replaces a dilapidated, bullet-ridden shell of a

building that became home to scores of heroin addicts before the

Russians finally demolished it several months ago at the behest

of Kabul authorities, who complained it "ruined the skyline",

Avetisyan said.

Russian engineers from state company Spetstroi Rossii will

oversee the project, which has been contracted by the Russian

government. It will employ Afghan construction firms.

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Though Afghanistan was devastated by the Soviet Union's war

here, which by some estimates killed millions and destroyed its

once-thriving agriculture, both sides have started to take a

more upbeat view of their relationship, helping Moscow gain a

bigger role.

At the sprawling and leafy Kabul University, the country's

largest, demand is growing for degrees in Russian language and

literature.

"Our students are too young to worry about the past. Instead

they see Russian as a bridge to social and economic

opportunities," said Mohammad Rahim Banaizada, one of six

professors in its Russian department.

Around 220 students are currently studying for four year

degrees in Russian, almost double that of five years ago,

Banaizada told Reuters beside framed pictures of Russian

President Vladimir Putin with the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.

They hung next to copies of typed Cyrillic letters from

Afghan King Amanullah Khan in 1919 to Vladimir Lenin, the

founder of the Soviet Union, affirming the countries' friendly

ties two years after the Bolsheviks swept to power.

"Russia is our neighbour with a culture we love. Things were

good when they were here," said third-year student Sharifullah,

22, who gave only his first name.

The cultural centre is the first of a series of ambitious

Russian construction projects in Afghanistan. Most are aimed at

reinforcing stability in a country where Russia believes

Washington is at risk of repeating its own mistakes.

After the Soviets rushed out, financial aid dried up and the

Afghan communist government collapsed, leading to infighting

between warlords and a vicious civil war that paved the way for

the Taliban's rise to power in 1996.

(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

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