December 13, 2007

Eurasian groupings seek closer security ties

As Russia has long advocated greater prominence for the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both groupings seem to be forging closer ties.

Commentary by Sergei Blagov in Moscow for ISN Security Watch (13/12/07)

The Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have pledged to boost their partnership in an apparent bid to keep western forces out of Central Eurasia.

At a meeting in Moscow on 4 December, CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha and SCO Deputy Secretary-General Gao Yusheng agreed that both groupings would sign a comprehensive plan of joint action in early 2008. The deal would be clinched at a meeting in Beijing between Bordyuzha and the SCO Secretary-General Bolat Nurgaliyev.

The CSTO top official made little secret of the two groupings' attempts to strengthen ties to counterbalance other organizations. Closer ties between the organizations would involve foreign policy coordination, Bordyuzha said. He also advocated coordinated action between the CSTO and the SCO to achieve shared foreign policy goals. The western groupings, NATO and others, already coordinate their efforts very efficiently, Bordyuzha argued.

Russian officials have long voiced concerns over perceived western meddling, implying that the CSTO and the SCO should act as a shield against this. Earlier this year, Bordyuzha specifically cited the increased activity of NATO, the EU and third countries as risk factors.

The ongoing drive toward closer ties between the organizations hardly comes as a surprise as both institutions have overlapping memberships. The CSTO members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while the SCO includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In August, SCO heads of state adopted a joint statement, pledging to undertake coordinated measures of prevention to forestall instability in the region. These moves sparked speculation that the SCO was aiming to unite Central Eurasia's nations in their opposition to the US presence in the region, although the SCO member states have been careful to avoid any clear manifestations of an anti-western stance. But the SCO still has the potential to adopt more anti-western overtones as Iran with repeatedly requesting full membership in the group.

SCO member states have repeatedly pledged not to form a military bloc. However, the group's major military drill in Russia's Ural Mountains in August and plans for similar war-games in Kazakhstan next year arguably indicate an apparent drift toward a military and security agenda. The SCO war games, an unprecedented show of joint military force carried out mainly by Russia and China, appeared designed to send a message to the West not to interfere in Central Asia.

In May, the CSTO indicated plans to form a joint army group in addition to the existing CSTO rapid deployment forces. The CSTO joint army group would aim to neutralize possible terrorist attacks, notably by Taliban militants in Afghanistan, Bordyuzha announced earlier this year. The CSTO was also mulling the creation of peacekeeping forces.

The Kremlin has been keen to promote the CSTO as a major player in world politics. The CSTO has a promising military-political and geo-strategic future, Russia's deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said on 6 December. The CSTO does not claim to play a global role, but it could not be ignored in any region of the world, he said.

Russia has been also wary of NATO reluctance to treat the CSTO as an equal partner and has advocated formal agreements between the two groupings. Moscow would be prepared to consider an agreement with NATO on military transit to Afghanistan through Russian territory, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko announced on 6 December. However, Russia would prefer such an agreement to be concluded between the CSTO and NATO, he said.

In terms of economic carrots, Moscow has allowed the CSTO states to procure Russian-made arms at Russian domestic prices. On 7 December, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that Russia would record an estimated 25 percent growth of its defense industry this year, while the armed forces would spend about one trillion rubles (nearly US$41 billion) to procure arms in 2008.

Russia's security and CSTO agenda was seen as connected with Ivanov, once seen as a potential successor of President Vladimir Putin. However, Putin's choice of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his preferred successor, announced on 10 December, was initially seen as a liberal choice. But Medvedev's suggestion to appoint Putin as prime minister after the March 2008 presidential poll indicated a continuity of the Kremlin’s overall policies.

Therefore, the Kremlin may continue to view perceived western meddling in Central Eurasia as a foreign policy concern, while an emerging partnership between the CSTO and the SCO is likely to be viewed as a counter-weight to what Russian politicians describe as the NATO-centric model of the world.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based correspondent for ISN Security Watch.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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