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Uzbekistan and Belarus reveal serious disagreement within the CSTO

29 luglio 2009

By Tamerlan Vahabov (07/15/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On June 14, member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization signed a document on the establishment of CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces. Due to its economic and military potential, Russia will provide the main and virtually the only viable component of these forces. This treaty is symbolic as it seals Russia’s political-military aspirations in the CSTO area. Surprisingly, Uzbekistan and one of Russia’s closest allies, Belarus, did not sign the document. Such developments make the mere existence of the CSTO RRF futile. Uzbekistan possesses the strongest military potential and the greatest strategic importance in Central Asia. Moreover, its decision not to sign the document is critical for considering potential U.S. engagement in the region.

BACKGROUND: The decision to establish the CSTO RRF was taken on February 4, 2009, during the summit of CSTO member countries. It was designed to fight terrorism, extremism, illegal drug trafficking, and provide for effective participation of CSTO members in maintaining regional and international security.

Belarusian President Lukashenko was not present at the CSTO Summit on June 14, 2009, and did not sign the document, thus boycotting the event. This decision was caused by the ban on Belarusian dairy products and meat from the Russian market, a serious blow to the Belarusian economy.

Russia, through its Federal Service for the Supervision of Consumer Rights and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) banned the import of almost 500 items of dairy products from Belarus, and then a further 800 because the Belarusian producers had not redrafted documentation in accordance with the requirements of the technical regulations relating to milk. And the republic refused “to discuss collective security issues in circumstances in which its economic security finds itself under threat.”

Uzbekistan’s motivation is far less obvious and Islam Karimov, unlike Lukashenko, did not completely boycott the Summit. Uzbekistan outlined four conditions for signing the CSTO RRF document: firstly, that the CSTO RRF can only be used based on a consensus of CSTO members; secondly, that the CSTO RRF document cannot enter into force before it is signed by all CSTO members; thirdly, that the CSTO RRF can only be deployed on non-CSTO territory and only if such deployment does not contradict internal legislation of the host country; fourthly, that the CSTO RRF cannot be used to resolve conflicts within the CSTO. In addition, Uzbekistan refused to permanently avail its troops for deployment as part of the CSTO RRF. Such conditions aim to prevent Russia from meddling with Uzbekistan’s internal affairs, which is especially important in light of the current chill in relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on the one hand and the unstable situation on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border on the other. Inconsistencies in Russia’s Central Asia policy could further destabilize the situation.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s reaction to the decisions of Belarus and Uzbekistan was tempered and he stated that both countries are welcome to join the CSTO RRF.

IMPLICATIONS: Uzbekistan’s conditions are reasonable in terms of regional security in both Central Asia and the broader non-CSTO region. By outlining these conditions, Uzbekistan will prevent two major precursors for destabilization of the situation in the entire greater Caspian region. Firstly, it will eliminate the CSTO’s and mainly Russia’s direct involvement in any potential crisis between Uzbekistan and its immediate neighbors. Problems between the Central Asian states, which are largely caused by water distribution issues, would hence be managed without outside interference. Secondly, it contributes to security in the Caucasus, because Uzbek conditions would prevent the CSTO RFF from being used in the Russian-Georgian and Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts.

Russia has a history of destabilizing behavior in the region and it currently has a highly volatile stance on such sensitive issues for Central Asia as the distribution of water resources and the construction of hydropower plants. Russia initially endorsed the Rogun hydropower plant project in Tajikistan. However, this changed when President Medvedev suddenly denounced Russia’s support of the Rogun agreement with Tajikistan and instead supported collegial decision-making on this project, which would involve other regional countries like Uzbekistan. To aggravate the situation further, Russia embarked on constructing the Kambarata hydropower plants in Kyrgyzstan. As a result, the already tense situation around water distribution was further fueled by Russia’s inconsistent actions.

If Uzbekistan’s decision not to sign the treaty is driven by such considerations, then its concerns over the CSTO RRF are quite reasonable, because such forces could legitimate Russian interference and thus further escalate the situation. An interesting pattern is revealed in Uzbekistan’s recent foreign policy course. The first element is related to its decision to abstain from the CSTO RRF. By doing so, Uzbekistan distances itself from unnecessary involvement in CSTO affairs which are contradictory to its interests, be it Russia-led deployment of CSTO troops or losing command over parts of its troops deployed within the CSTO. This move certainly demonstrates Uzbekistan’s cautious and weighed approach to Russia. The second element is Uzbekistan’s behavior toward NATO and the U.S. – President Karimov allowed non-military supplies to be shipped through the territory of Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s two-sided moves reveal Islam Karimov’s eagerness to balance between the U.S. and NATO on the one hand and Russia on the other. Unlike Belarus, Uzbekistan did not demonstratively reveal its opposition to the CSTO RRF, but rather quietly submitted its reservations. Uzbekistan is also stressing the importance of improving its relations with foreign investors in the energy sector. Through attracting more foreign investment, Uzbekistan hopes to diversify its foreign policy options even further. On May 13, during the annual oil and gas conference, the chairman of state giant Uzbekneftegaz Ulugbek Nazarov said the country was expecting foreign companies to help in optimizing technical efficiency, processing deep natural gas, enhancing energy efficiency and new technologies.

Belarus’ decision not to sign the document is mainly dictated by its economic interests in Russia, but there is more to the decision. Belarus has not yet recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia; a move one would otherwise expect from such a reliable partner to Russia as Belarus has been until recently. Belarus seems to be changing its strategic route right before our eyes. Nevertheless, it is still too early to speak of a total u-turn of Belarusian policies. Its boycotting of the last CSTO summit is a reaction to concrete Russian policies with regard to Belarusian goods entering Russian markets. Belarus termed this move economic discrimination against Belarus by the CSTO country Russia. The fact that Belarus linked economics to political-military issues is especially revealing.

It is obvious that these complications are dictated by independent calculations of CSTO members and these calculations do not necessarily go in line with those of Russia. An equally important factor is that both Belarus and Uzbekistan realize that Russia strongly desires to establish a political-military presence throughout the former Soviet space in case NATO moves eastward. The actions taken grant both countries improved security and room for maneuver in the face of such demarches.

Russia’s over-reliance on hard power further polarizes Central Asia, the South Caucasus and other regions of the former Soviet Union. If establishing the CSTO faces so many contradictions and obstacles, one could question the organization’s purpose. The current situation brings opportunities for the U.S. to engage in the region.

CONCLUSIONS: Considering the current situation in Afghanistan and Western energy security concerns, it is becoming increasingly important to pay attention to Central Asia. The resurgence of the Taliban and the threat of the conflict spilling over into to Central Asia add validity to the claim. The Uzbek military, despite its large size and relatively superior armaments, is still lagging far behind NATO troops and it is doubtful whether it will be able to meet the challenges of insurgency if it reoccurs. For the U.S., this could be a great opportunity to start engaging the Uzbek leader and give him an alternative to the shaky CSTO.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Tamerlan Vahabov is a Graduate Student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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