Sergei Markedonov* for RIA Novosti
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Military-political integration in Eurasia will be further enhanced by the ratification of the agreement on the procedure for establishing the CSTO Collective Security Forces and their operation, submitted by President Dmitry Medvedev to parliament.
The Collective Security Treaty was signed in 1992. Ten years later, in 2002, the leaders of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan signed the charter of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the agreement on the organization’s legal status. Now they are preparing to sign a memorandum between the CSTO Secretariat and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), which should strengthen the international legitimacy of the post-Soviet organization.
Can the CSTO be regarded as the Eurasian alternative to NATO?
Moscow as center of gravity
This is not the only question that comes to mind. Are we witnessing the development of a second geopolitical pole, especially given the plans of the United States and its allies to withdraw troops from Afghanistan? Are there grounds to see this as evidence of the decline of the unipolar world, which Russian diplomats have criticized so sharply?
The CSTO may grow into an effective integration organization in the realm of security. Yet it would be premature to say that it has a potential to become a real alternative to NATO, let alone to the West as a whole.
First, its resources are considerably smaller than those of NATO. On the other hand, as Alexander Suvorov, the 18th-century Russian military leader, said, “Win with ability, not with numbers,” even if experts are divided in their assessments of the organization’s “ability.”
The integration potential of the CSTO member countries is extremely important, but even a cursory glance reveals that Russia is the largest donor of this project.
Unlike NATO, which is vital not only to the United States but also to its allies, who contribute to the bloc financially, the CSTO is funded primarily by Russia. Its other members are not sufficiently motivated.
President Medvedev first voiced the idea of building up the CSTO’s military component at a summit in Moscow in September 2008. The CSTO leaders met primarily to discuss the “five-day war” between Russia and Georgia, but ultimately affirmed their willingness to approve Russia’s actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008.
However, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan avoided formally recognizing the two breakaway Georgian republics’ independence, each for its own reasons.
Things have changed on the Eurasian and international agenda since September 2008, but the CSTO member countries have not recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moreover, some of Russia’s neighbors appear to be openly wary of Russia after August 2008.
That reaction was certainly provoked by the afflictions, phobias and fears characteristic of all newly independent countries, as well as a desire of the national elites to maneuver between Moscow and Washington.
All the Central Asian countries have skeletons in their closets, such as border conflicts between CSTO members – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
But the key question is the readiness of the CSTO members (even if without the over-ambitious Ukraine, the objectionable Azerbaijan, Moldova with its complaints over Transdnestr, as well as Georgia) to elaborate common political approaches to Eurasian security.
Imagine a hypothetical escalation of violence in the South Caucasus, for example in the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region claimed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a CSTO member country, Armenia can expect assistance from its allies. This situation is quite possible as Azerbaijan has never ruled out the possibility of using military force to solve the Karabakh issue.
But will Kazakhstan or Tajikistan, whose economic ties with Azerbaijan have been growing stronger in past years, support Armenia? It appears if the situation were to deteriorate, Armenia would be unlikely to receive the consolidated assistance of all CSTO member countries.
Besides, the Central Asian countries are unwilling to get involved in issues that have no direct bearing on them. Tajikistan’s neighbors were extremely active in the early 1990s during the civil war in that country, but remained aloof during the peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia in 1994-2008, although it operated under an official CIS mandate.
The Collective Security Treaty was signed in May 1992 largely because of growing tensions on the Tajik-Afghan border. It was initially closely connected to the Central Asian countries and that geopolitical focus has shifted only slightly in the past 20 years.
Two pipes better than one?
The Kremlin’s allies in the CSTO are not ready to stand up to the West. As a high-ranking Kazakh official once told me, “Two pipes are always better than one.” This is why a choice between Russia and the West, which some Russian circles are forcing on the Central Asian countries, is unrealistic.
All the CIS countries, including Belarus and Armenia, have interests in the West and expectations connected with the EU and the United States – especially Armenia, which is aware of the strength of Armenian lobbies in Washington and Paris. Consequently, the CSTO countries will do their best to prevent their organization from becoming an “alternative to NATO,” preferring instead to diversify its foreign and defense policy. Even Abkhazia, which only Russia and a handful of other countries have recognized, is keeping the Turkish window of opportunity open. This is logical, as Turkey has the world’s largest Abkhazian diaspora and the second-largest army in NATO.
Armenia has defined this approach as the policy of complementarism. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and even Kyrgyzstan are pursuing this policy too, to a larger or smaller degree.
Moreover, Russia itself does not want to fight the West, especially amid a large-scale economic crisis.
A compromise between Moscow and Washington on many security issues in Eurasia and outside it will be very difficult to achieve, at least in the near future. On the other hand, many strategic issues such as nuclear security, WMD proliferation, Iran, North Korea, the Middle East and Afghanistan should be addressed jointly.
The CSTO is unlikely to become a Eurasian NATO soon, but it can and should try to become an effective tool for ensuring security in Central Asia.
*Sergei Markedonov is a visiting fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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