Tashkent’s decision to withdraw from the Collective Security Treaty Organization could lead to yet another surge of destabilization in the Asian region
Uzbekistan’s official note to terminate its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has come as a surprise to everyone except experts. In December 2011, Alexander Lukashenko proposed that Nikolay Bordyuzha, CSTO’s Secretary General, considers Uzbekistan’s continued membership in the organization before its summit in Moscow. Back then, the Belarusian president asked CSTO to “tackle some internal problems, primarily those concerning Uzbekistan’s position on some issues – and you can’t get away from this; everybody knows it.”
CSTO members include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Treaty, initiated by Uzbekistan, was signed in 1992 in Tashkent and ratified in 1994. Islam Karimov, the country’s president at that time, was seriously concerned about the civil war that had broken out in neighbouring Tajikistan and was seeking ways of collective resistance to the Islamist movement that was expanding in the region.
The first public disparities surfaced in 1999 when Tashkent refused to extend the treaty, thus exiting the CSTO. Moreover, Uzbekistan joined GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia and Moldova), viewed by the Kremlin as an anti-Russian entity, of which it was a member until 2005. The tide turned abruptly after the Andijon massacre in spring-summer 2005. The West strongly criticized Tashkent for the violent crushing of protests that killed many people. As a result, Uzbekistan went back to the CSTO, becoming a fully-fledged member in 2006.
However, it was not long before Tashkent once more took its own position on various issues. It often opposed fundamental decisions and refused to ratify over 15 agreements and protocols, including the Protocol on the Procedure for the Formation and Operation of Collective Security System Forces and Means.
Vladimir Putin may well have tried to prevent Uzbekistan’s exit from the CSTO during his recent visit to Tashkent. His meeting with Islam Karimov on June 5th only lasted a few hours. The official outcome was the signing of a memorandum whereby Uzbekistan joined the CIS Free Trade Zone Agreement. Yet, Russian observers claimed that Uzbekistan had been persistently backpedalling on all of Moscow’s initiatives to develop the CSTO and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Once Uzbekistan issued its CSTO exit note, other member-states had no idea how to respond. Later, when Russia’s top echelons learned more about what was going on, officials and experts close to the Kremlin were quick with their comments.
Most of them noted that this was Tashkent’s attempt to move away from Russia and get closer to USA.
Vladimir Zharikhin, Deputy Director of the CIS Institute, shares this view. In the Vzgliad (Opinion) newspaper, he reminds readers that Tashkent has been actively trying to get closer to America lately, but without much success. “We realize that geopolitics has no room for romantic emotion. Therefore, there will be official rapprochement, but without any particular love or respect,” he said.
Konstantin Sivkov, First Vice-President at the Academy of Geopolitical Issues, shares this view. “Uzbekistan’s exit means only one thing: its government has taken the course of moving closer to the US and NATO.” After rapprochement, the leaders will be replaced with those that are more loyal to Uzbekistan, he notes. “That’s it. They’ve decided on their course, aimed at the emergence of a ‘colour revolution’ in the country. This is likely to happen in 18 months, or two years at most.”
The French Revolution terrified the absolutist and feudal Europe of that time to the extent that its ghost haunted top ministerial cabinets for almost a century. The Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine still send shivers down Kremlin leaders’ spines. But this is purely emotional; there is also a practical side.
According to Mr. Sivkov, Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO will have a serious impact on its relations with Russia. “This might not be visible initially, but Uzbekistan will subsequently implement an anti-Russian policy in the region, causing a deterioration of inter-state relations.”
Damaged relations with the Kremlin signal improved relations with someone else. Clearly, in this case, with Washington, and that is the Kremlin’s tragedy. The nightmare of Moscow’s politicians and generals is coming true: the American enemy is getting ever closer. Uzbekistan could even end up with a US military base! To hear some Russian military officials, this would be tantamount to it being located somewhere just outside Moscow. No more, no less.
Looking at the issue based on the situation in Central Asia rather than from the point of view of the Russian elite’s antiquated anti-Americanism, the CSTO is an organization of talk and declarations, not action. Alexei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the media that “essentially, throughout the twenty years of its existence, the CSTO has never tested itself in major incidents, related to ensuring security in the CIS. The most obvious demonstration of its helplessness was the second Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in the spring and summer of last year. There was bloodshed in this CSTO member-state, but the organization failed to respond to the situation and regulate the conflict, confirming its impotence. However, it’s possible that it could have aggravated the situation, had it interfered. Can you imagine Uzbek military units trying to deal with protests in Kyrgyzstan!”
Tashkent has serious problems with virtually all of its neighbours. Its relations with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are very strained in connection with their plans to construct a cascade of hydroelectric power stations. If they do so, Uzbekistan will get less water which will aggravate the existing deficit. Hopes that Moscow will help to resolve this problem have proved to be vain. Moreover, Russian organizations are participating in the construction of the most contentious dams, the Rogun Dam on the Vaksh River in Tajikistan and Kambarata Dam on the Naryn River in Kazakhstan. While oil and gas fuel conflicts in the world, water could easily generate one in Central Asia.
Regional leadership is another problem with the CSTO. Uzbekistan is trying to win it from Kazakhstan. Overall, Uzbekistan’s regional-scale hegemonic intentions face intense resistance from its neighbours. For this reason, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan increasingly see Kazakhstan as a natural counterweight to Uzbekistan, which fuels regional rivalry, especially with the interference of external powers, such as China, the USA and Russia. Apparently, Uzbekistan has grown weary of all this and gone off in pursuit of happiness with others. This will not necessarily be Washington. Beijing is also not averse to putting a little pressure on the Kremlin.
Moscow and Minsk pretend that no harm will come from Uzbekistan’s exit from the CSTO. Nikolai Makarov, Chief of CSTO Headquarters in Russia, stressed that there would not be a significant impact on the CSTO. In fact, this may not be the case. According to Dosym Satpayev, a Kazakh political scientist and Director of the Risk Assessment Group, guaranteeing security in Central Asia without Uzbekistan will be next to impossible. He claims that “Uzbekistan is one of the key states in Central Asia and ensuring regional security without it is difficult. But, Uzbekistan is a sovereign state that has the right to decide on which organizations and entities it wants, or doesn’t want to participate in.”
Clearly, Uzbekistan’s decision on the CSTO will result in the further polarization of Central Asia and the region may well continue the arc of instability, which stretches from the Middle East to Afghanistan.