By M K Bhadrakumar
There is no knowing whether the timing of the "informal" summit meeting of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) last Friday in the Kazakh capital of Astana was mischievously planned or was a genuine goof-up. It happened to be on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the ill-conceived coup in Moscow in August 1991, which eventually brought the Soviet Union tumbling down in a heap in the history books.
Even more curiously, as CSTO's leaders gathered in Astana a three-week annual military exercise began in Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan, involving the United States and Britain. The Kazakh government announced that the exercise would focus on "interaction, combat compatibility, cooperation and interoperability during international peacekeeping operations", which are more or
less the leitmotif of CSTO, which comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The Kazakhs are hoping to have a much bigger exercise next year, which would be dedicated to checking the "level of compatibility of the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] member-states"; and they would expect representatives from 40 NATO participating states to arrive in Kazakhstan.
And yet, CSTO was meant to have been the "NATO of the East". Russia has been increasingly inclined to set more ambitious goals for the alliance. Russia's security strategy until 2020 sees the CSTO as "a key mechanism to counter regional military challenges and threats".
In the run-up to last week's summit at Astana, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev anticipated that Russia would have "an interest in bolstering the CSTO's potential" and would be "upfront and open about it". He signaled that he would focus on developments in the Arab world and how "ultimately developments in North Africa and the Arab world have a direct impact on the situation in the CSTO countries, too, especially on developments in Central Asia".
Medvedev set an agenda for the CSTO as a global security organization. Whereas, CSTO secretary general Nikolai Bordyuzha acknowledged that the "uppermost concern" of the alliance was the "impact Afghanistan is having on the situation in the Central Asian region and the increased activity of extremist groups in this region".
He explained, "A sizeable number of young people from CSTO member countries are undergoing training in camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is a threat of terrorist groups forcing their way into the Central Asian countries' territory." Bordyuzha added:
A second problem is the fundamentalist Islamic organizations' activeness in the CSTO countries themselves and their efforts to win over new supporters, reaching into the social base in which these kinds of religious opposition groups and also terrorist groups take root. We are also worried by the activeness of organized crime groups ... to bribe the authorities and establish contacts with extremist and terrorist groups ... Overall, although the situation is stable in our view, there are nonetheless a number of trends of real concern, and we have drafted our proposals [for the Astana summit] accordingly.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the CSTO, was more specific: "We have nothing to conceal: the Muslim world is in turmoil, and it can not be ruled out that the situation may be exacerbated in our Muslim countries as well. First of all in Tajikistan, and there are enough problems in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and some have started to stir up problems in Kazakhstan from different sides."
Lukashenko would have been doing some kite-flying with the Kremlin's prior concurrence when he suggested that the CSTO's primary goal is to turn the "consultative body [which it is currently] into a real military and political bloc, ready to react to any crisis situation and to this end adopt a special targeted program on equipping the CSTO forces with military hardware and modern weapons."
However, the Astana summit ended up on a far different note. What emerges is that CSTO is finding itself in an impasse in Central Asia. Uzbek leader Islam Karimov developed cold feet and failed to turn up. As the ongoing military exercise in Kazakhstan testifies, Central Asian countries are increasingly adopting a "multi-vector" approach to regional security. The CSTO member countries have one foot in the NATO tent as well and often that foot seems to be the more purposive and "kinetic" one.
On the eve of the Astana summit, it came to be known that Kyrgyzstan was going to receive US$30 million worth of assistance from the US to install new air traffic control systems to replace Russian equipment.
Lukashenko was in a noticeably chastened mood by Friday afternoon. He told the media, "Certainly, assessing our work, we have noted that there are several internal drawbacks. I mean not only the domestic problems of the CSTO member states but also divisive issues between the countries."
Indeed, Karimov's absence arose out of the critically "divisive issue" of the prerogative of the CSTO intervening in the internal affairs of a member country. Tashkent has been reluctant to be drawn into a CSTO framework of cooperation over the deployment of its rapid reaction force, while other member countries are agreeable.
Last year's crisis situation in Kyrgyzstan exposed the CSTO's weakness as an effective regional security body. Lukashenko may be unduly optimistic that the formation of a collective rapid reaction force can be completed by December.
The "NATO of the East" claims as an important outcome of the Astana summit the agreement to jointly counter potential threats in cyber-space.
Lukashenko said, "Many new goals have appeared in the light of recent world events, including those in the Arab states and in North Africa. We have agreed that our countries will work out measures to fight potential threats, primarily in the information sphere and cyber-space."
The reasons why the CSTO is floundering in Central Asia are not far to seek. CSTO has a role cut out for it in Central Asia when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has no intention of turning into a military bloc, while the military aspects of regional cooperation are crucial against the backdrop of the Afghan problem and the volatility in the current security situation in Central Asia and in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular.
However, the clincher is the CSTO's ability or readiness to act promptly and resolutely by using military force, wherever necessary, to put down violence. At present, CSTO remains a theoretical proposition of collective security but devoid of any real content.
Moscow has consistently urged the grouping to boost its defense ties. Moscow is acutely conscious that Western powers are actively working against the CSTO gaining traction and have, therefore, sought to expand cooperation among the member states in the military and foreign policy spheres.
But progress has been tardy. For instance, the collective peacekeeping force of the alliance was supposed to have been formed sometime last year and there is still no certainty on that front. Again, Moscow has pitched for closer coordination of military planning. In April, the chiefs of the general staff of the CSTO member states agreed to form a military committee to supplement the Council of Defense Ministers. This fitted in with Moscow's ambitious goal of claiming a measure of global role along the lines that NATO is carving out, especially involvement in international peacekeeping operations.
The CSTO summit in Moscow last December raised hopes that the alliance was finally on the move when it adopted 33 agreements and decisions, including amendments of the alliance's founding treaties and five agreements on crisis settlement. (See Moscow moves to counter NATO, Asia Times Online, Dec 14, 2010)
However, Uzbekistan figured as a major dissenting voice. At the summit in December, Karimov insisted that the alliance must confine itself to countering external threats and should not be involved in settling conflicts among the former Soviet republics.
Subsequently, Karimov expressed solidarity with Turkmenistan's stance on regional security, which devolves on the concept of "positive neutrality". Karimov seemed to imply that Tashkent might drift toward "neutrality" if Moscow pushed the envelope. Again, Karimov point-blank refused to sign certain documents that were drawn up for the December summit.
Price of parsimony
Meanwhile, as the current Kazakh military exercise illustrates, the Central Asian states are developing their ties with NATO. Tajikistan, for instance, has taken help from NATO to reinforce the border with Afghanistan including the establishment of outposts and the construction of a bridge across the Pyandzh River.
NATO instructors are training Tajik forces in mine sweeping and prevention of drug trafficking. Tajikistan figures as a transit point for NATO's supplies for the troops in northern Afghanistan. The Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported in June quoting experts that "Dushanbe wanted the [NATO] alliance to establish a military base in Tajikistan. It offered the Aini airfield to NATO, which is a convenient staging post for flying missions" in northern Afghanistan.
Part of the problem is that Central Asia has increasingly become a region of states, which have specific national interests of their own. This has complicated Moscow's task of influencing the region as a whole in a unified direction.
The specter of Arab-Spring style turmoil breaking out in Central Asia may seem a "unifying factor", but on the other hand, the Central Asian states are savvy enough to know that such an eventuality becomes a very remote possibility in the current scenario; there are no forces in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan that are capable of mounting a revolution.
Ironically, the authoritarian regimes can even use the Arab Spring as an argument in favor for the "stability" they offer to the people. There is indeed economic and political stagnation in the region, but a Middle East-like "revolutionary fuse" is lacking. Part of the problem also lies in the Russian policies. Russian scholar Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie recently summed up:
Russia failed to define its national interests in Central Asia and interpreted them too ineptly. It lost an opportunity to influence the domestic policy in these states. They don't have a "pro-Russian" lobby anymore. There are individuals who for personal reasons would like to be closer to Russia, but there are no longer any parties or interest groups that would treat Russia as a primary strategic partner ... Look at their elites. By age and mentality, they are Soviet people, but they still treat Russia with suspicion.
Russia hasn't hesitated to drive hard bargains with even a tiny country like Tajikistan. Moscow's demand for a quid pro quo for its help is not without justification. Arguably, Russia too is beset with its own problems, which may lead to an extreme view that spending money on its impoverished Central Asian backyard is like squandering scarce resources. From such a perspective, when it comes to the CSTO, the old adage comes to mind - "you can't have your cake and eat it too."