The CSTO Enfant terrible

By Dmitry Ontoyev

Suspension of Uzbekistan Membership in the Organization May Have the Most Serious Consequences

Tashkent sent to the Secretariat of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) a note on suspension of its membership in the military-political union inspired by Russia.
A Capricious Member

This is not the first withdrawal of Uzbekistan from the Alliance – in 1999 it didn’t prolong the action of the Collective Security Treaty and joined the Organization of GUAM, uniting Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia and Moldova.

Only after tragic events in Andijan, when Tashkent was severely criticized by the USA and the EU, up to introduction of sanctions, the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov made a decision to return to the CSTO. The administration of Russia supported the statements of officials on that Andijan events were counterterrorism operation and gave Tashkent a reliable political umbrella in exchange for participation in integration initiatives of Moscow.

However, the policy of Uzbekistan sometimes didn’t at all coincide with the wishes of the Kremlin. In course of last six years of the CSTO operation Tashkent hasn’t supported any serious initiative of the Organization, including establishment of the Rapid Reaction Forces, and only nominally participated in various trainings, constantly held by the CSTO Headquarters. Due to that one of the main principles of work of the CSTO is adoption of decisions on the ground of consensus. Tashkent has always had an opportunity to express its “special opinion” almost on all the issues.

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It came to that the President of Belarus Aleksander Lukashenko in the end of 2011 publically suggested to exclude Uzbekistan from the Organization. A number of experts expressed their view that the CSTO’s reform and granting to this generally amorphous structure clear authorities, as well as holding of any serious operations were impossible mainly due to counteraction from Tashkent.

It seemed that the withdrawal of Uzbekistan from the CSTO should only make happy the upholders of a more active role of the Organization within maintenance of safety in the region. The proof for that is Russian foreign political rhetoric. However, there are several factors, which can seriously change, even break, the balance of powers in the region.
Role of Central Asia in the Strategy of the USA

The USA, being one of the key players in Middle Asia, clearly realizes the necessity of preservation of its military-political presence in the region. It’s enough to remember the ideas of Halford Mackinder, the classic of western geopolitics, who suggested that control of “Hartland” is the urgent condition to preserve dominating positions in the world. Obviously that the withdrawal of the troops of international coalition, and first of all, the forces of the USA from Afghanistan and Iraq, shall deprive Washington of many  opportunities, which are granted by the existence of a hundred thousand contingent in the heart of Eurasia. The decision of the President of Kirgizia Almazbek Atambayev by 2014 to eliminate the Transit Center “Manas” (or as it is commonly called, American air base “Manas”) even more undermines the possibilities of the USA to influence the processes in the region.

Maintenance of influence on Central Asia is one of the key aims of the new foreign policy of Washington, which has shifted the focus of its attention from Near East to Asia Pacific region. The reasons for these are obvious – growing power of China together with weakened American economy and general chaotization of international relations force the USA to apply all possible efforts to restrain Beijing. Such steps include strengthening of Pacific fleet, establishment of new military-marine bases, as for example, in Australian city of Darvin, and entrapment of China from Sea.

Which role does Central Asia play in the strategy of Washington? The answer is evident – the USA plans to deprive China of the possibility to fix its economic influence in the region, to cut off the economy of China from Central Asia resources and to control transit of Chinese goods to Europe. One of the projects, supposed for the accomplishment of this strategy can become also the announced in 2011 concept of a New Silk Way. Targeted at strengthening of economic interaction in the region, the concept suggests the establishment of a developed wide-scale network of transit contacts between South and Central Asia. Within the frameworks of the concept they mark out two priority directions – the project of the gas pipeline Turkmenistan – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India (TAPI), which should be finished by 2015, and electric power project CASA-1000, anticipating supply of electric power from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to India and Pakistan. Except for that the general logic of the “new Silk Way” fits also the anticipated project of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which can fill the gas pipeline Nabucco with natural gas from Turkmenistan. Thus, to accomplish the “New Silk Way” the USA needs to get the consent of local elites to participate in the project under the patronage of the USA and the refusal of these local elites from political unions with the People’s Republic of China.
Disagreements between Astana and Tashkent

Here we should make a short digression and underline that one of the factors, defining geopolitical picture of Central Asia is competition between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for the leadership in the region. Kazakhstan possesses a highly developed economy, good investment climate (in the rating of the world bank Doing Business Kazakhstan takes the 47th place from 183; Russia, by the way, takes only 120th position), strong modernization potential. Uzbekistan, the economy power of which is inferior to Kazakhstan, has the biggest population in the region (29 million people), powerful army with big mobilization reserve and huge stocks of easily produced hydrocarbons.

The fight for regional leadership between the two states went through various stages, sometimes it escalated, but in recent years, according to experts’ estimations, the garland has been gained by Kazakhstan. Among the reasons were named first of all close relations of Kazakhstan with Russia within integrational unions, as well as good relations of the USA and China. It has been achieved due to multi-vector foreign policy of Astana, aimed at interaction with main actors in the region.

The most solid relations connect Astana with Moscow – in the frames of the CSTO, as well as in a wide spectrum of economic integrational associations, starting with EurAsEc and ending with the Common Economic Space and suggested Eurasian Union, which is called to unite Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Simultaneously the relations between Uzbekistan with  West began improving. One of the most significant factors, defining the policy of Washington and Brussels in relation to Tashkent, has become the issue on provision of international coalition forces in Afghanistan.

There are two most convenient ways of transportation of big number of cargos to such inaccessible terrain as Afghanistan – through Pakistan and through Central Asia. Interrelations of the USA with Pakistan periodically aggravated with the special operation of union troops against the rebels within the territory of the Islamic Republic, till reached its peak in may 2011, when the troop of marine Seals of the USA eliminated the nominal leader of al-Qaeda Osama Ben Laden. After a series of attacks from UAV, in the result of which peaceful citizens died, Pakistan closed transit for the cargos of the coalition, forcing the United Command to rely only on Northern network of supplies (NNS), which lies also through the territory of Uzbekistan. By this it becomes clear from diplomatic dispatches, uncovered by WikiLeaks, that Tashkent observed its participation in NNS as the counterbalance to the ambitions of Russia.

Mainly to assure uninterrupted provision for international forces, and later for unimpeded withdrawal from Afghanistan foreign policy and military establishments of the USA actively strengthened their relations with Central Asian states. Particularly, in October 2011 the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton paid an official visit to Tashkent and confirmed the readiness of Washington for further promotion of cooperation with Uzbekistan and underlined improvement of the situation with human rights and political freedoms in the country.

The visit of the Secretary of State was preceded by business trips to the region of the number of employees of the Administration, including the Director on Central Asia in the Council of National Security Lynn Tracey and the Assistance of the Secretary of State on South and Central Asia Robert Blake-junior. Moreover, twice the region was visited by the Special Ambassador of the US President on Afghanistan and Pakistan Mark Grossman, and the President of the USA Barak Obama had a phone conversation with the leader of Uzbekistan.

Relations between Washington and Tashkent were improving not only at the level of diplomats in civilian, diplomats with shoulder straps have also contributed. In March the US Minister of Defense and a former CIA Director Leon Panetta paid a visit to Kirgizia. In November 2011 Tashkent and Dushanbe were visited by the Commander of a land component of central Command of the US (US CENTCOM) general Vinсent Brooks. Obviously that the main subject of negotiations was cooperation within the frameworks of NNS, however the Mass Media spread information about additional track of talks, during which American military men promised to give the troops of Central Asia states a part of ammunition and machines, that is planned to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. This became possible after lifting of sanctions by the US Congress on granting of military aid to Uzbekistan in September of 2011.

Making a brief analysis of the attempts to strengthen the influence of Washington in Central Asia, we can’t ignore the plan “Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative” (CACI) suggested by the USA in February this year during the Ministerial meeting of Paris Pact in Vienna. According to information from opened sources, the CACI plan anticipates the establishment of “counternarcotics centers” in five republics of Central Asia, including force and informational-analytical components. Particularly it was suggested that intelligence component of the centers should have access to all operative and secret information possessed by the special services of Central Asia states within the line of fighting drugs.

However, as the newspaper “Kommersant” reports, many potential participants of the American initiative let to understand that they support it.
Uzbekistani Place of Arms of the USA

During the last session of the CSTO it was decided that allocation of military bases of the third states within the territory of the Treaty is impossible without consent of all member-states. Suspension of participation in the CSTO liberates Uzbekistan from the undertaken liabilities. Now the USA can use the situation, but whether Uzbekistan shall be ready to allocate American military base at its territory?

Geopolitical consequences of this can be imagined only in general lines. If Islam Karimov sanctions allocation of foreign military base, influence of Russia on the process, taking place in the region, shall reduce significantly (although it also now, frankly speaking, leaves much to be desired). The USA shall make another step to fix its military-political presence in Central Asia. Acute become contradictions between Kazakhstan, which is supported by Russia, and Uzbekistan, which shall seek for another “patron”.

Worsening of the situation of China is not excluded, threatened shall be its interests in Central Asia. Reaction and the reply steps of Chinese government are hardly predictable.

Less clear seems to be the prospects of Uzbekistan itself. The generation of leaders of the last decade of the XXth century and the first decade of the XXIst century gradually go off political scene. The question who shall be the heir of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Islam Karimov and Emomali Rahmon, is still unclear, although political orientation of Central Asia states shall depend on the personalities and interests of new leaders.

It’s easily to predict activation of Islamic movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in case if the country shall prone to the partnership with the USA.

Counter-terrorism operation can easily turn even as it is the most peaceful Central Asian republic into a new field of battle between radical Islamists and the states of West. We shouldn’t also forget also about the movement “East Turkestan”, which can make its contribution into destabilization of the region. In general the conflict, similar to the one described above, can easily lead to radicalization of local Islamists and potentially – to the crackdown of the state.

However, it is only a remote and quite unwanted prospect. At the moment we observe suspended membership of Uzbekistan in the CSTO, claims of Tajikistan and Kirgizia for Moscow on increase of fees for Russian military bases, increase by Azerbaijan of the fee for Gabala Radar station – and  as the final chord – absolutely indefinite, and probably, quite sad future of Afghanistan.

Considering that foreign political planning of Russian leaders sometimes leaves much to be desired, and traditional Europe-centricity of Russian foreign policy forces the Kremlin to give attention to the relations first of all with West, the question on counter-measures and reply steps still remains to be opened. In this respect the most promising project is the Eurasian Union, which shall allow Russia through Kazakhstan to rehabilitate mainly lost influence in Central Asia and to shape the skeleton of the new system of regional security.

Till the time Moscow realizes that it should talk to Central Asia states as with equal partners, yet till Eurasian vector becomes the key direction of Russian foreign policy and till Russia would actively promote attractive integrational model, we shall get closer to the point of non-return which is followed by lost Central Asia and collapse of geopolitical ambitions of the country.
Dmitry Ontoyev – Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences, P.G.
Translated by EuroDialogueXXI from ng.ru