Russia parries US thrust in Central Asia
By M K Bhadrakumar
The Uzbeks explain the ingenuity of their mind by often repeating a saying that
goes: when they speak, they seldom mean what they say; and when they act, they
almost always disregard what they have in mind.
To be sure, it is hazardous to attempt a definitive interpretation of what the
Uzbek Foreign Ministry in Tashkent meant on Monday when it alleged that the
"implementation of such projects" as a Russian decision to set up a second
military base in Kyrgyzstan could "reinforce militarization processes" as well
destabilize the situation in the vast region", apart from "provoking various
kinds of nationalist struggles".
Was it genuine concern, a veiled threat or mere rhetoric? Earlier on Saturday,
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiyev
signed a memorandum on Russia's military presence in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan
already hosts a Russian airbase in Kant and four other Russian military
facilities. An estimated 400 Russian military personnel from Russia's 5th Air
Army are located at the base as well as Su-25 Frogfoot strike aircraft and Mi-8
CSTO at a crossroads
The memorandum signed in Bishkek envisages that Kyrgyzstan will host an
additional Russian contingent up to a battalion size and a training center for
both countries' service personnel. Moscow originally offered to deploy a
battalion-sized unit as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization
(CSTO) in Kyrgyzstan's Batken region in the south.
The memorandum is in the nature of a bilateral Russian-Kyrgyz framework.
Kyrgyzstan says it is receptive to inputs from CSTO partners regarding the new
base that will be formalized in an agreement by November. CSTO comprises
Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The CSTO is at a crossroads. Moscow's efforts to transform the loose security
alliance into a full-fledged group have gone nowhere. But things aren't always
what they seem on the surface in Central Asia. In an intriguing twist, the
"final decision" on the new base has been postponed to November.
Tashkent believes that with the geopolitical templates in Central Asia moving
so palpably, it pays to recalibrate its association with the CSTO. At any rate,
the Americans are thrilled at Tashkent's strategic defiance of Moscow. The
Central Asian bazaar is tizzy with rumors that US President Barack Obama may
reward his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov with an invitation to visit
However, Russians who know Uzbeks better than most seem to be working according
to a plan. The Russian move to strengthen its military presence in Kyrgyzstan
is intended to counter the renewed US thrust into Central Asia. The North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) recently held a meeting of the
Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) Security Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan.
This was the first such EAPC meeting outside NATO territory. The alliance is
indeed lurching toward Central Asia, and Moscow is worried.
Yet, it is hard to imagine Moscow was taken by surprise by Tashkent's stance.
Tashkent was lukewarm about the Russian project to rapidly build up the CSTO.
Last December, at the informal CSTO summit meeting in Borovoye, when Russia
first mooted the idea of creating a new Collective Operational Reaction Force
(CORF) "just as good as comparable NATO forces", Uzbekistan abstained from the
Moscow nonetheless pressed ahead and when it formally announced the creation of
the CORF at the CSTO summit meeting in Moscow on February 4, Tashkent took an
ambivalent stance. Moscow went ahead regardless and formally created the CORF
at the CSTO summit in Moscow on June 14. Unsurprisingly, Uzbekistan refused to
Medvedev said at the summit: "We are open to the possibility that our partners
who have not signed these documents will ultimately sign them later, after
giving it some thought and evaluating the situation. I am referring to
Uzbekistan, which has a number of doubts, but has not excluded the possibility
itself. The president of Uzbekistan said he would analyze certain aspects to
resume discussion of the agreement at a later stage."
Tashkent hits back ...
However, Tashkent lost no time in reacting. On June 23, the Uzbek Foreign
Ministry issued a statement clarifying that Tashkent supported a new CORF only
for repulsing "foreign aggression" and not for resolution of the so-called
frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space or for deployments during any
internal conflict within a member state - "CORF should not be turned into a
tool to resolve some disputed issues not only within the CSTO but also in the
CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] space".
The statement said, "Each CSTO member state is able to resolve its domestic
conflicts and problems by its own forces without involving armed forces from
abroad." It stressed that any decision to activate the CORF mechanism must be
based on "the absolute observance of the principle of consensus".
What emerges is that Moscow factored in the overall shift in Uzbek foreign
policy in the past year or two in the direction of rapprochement with the West
and took a deliberate decision to draw Tashkent out. Moscow commentators have
voiced exasperation that the CSTO partners have the best of both worlds -
receiving lavish attention from the West while enjoying security cover and
political backing from Russia.
But Tashkent has been at this very same point before. Ten years ago, Uzbekistan
walked out of the CSTO to join the US-sponsored GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine,
Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova), only to ditch the GUUAM (and plunge it to
untimely death) and eventually evict the US from the Khanabad base in 2005.
Tashkent estimates that the US and NATO are in Afghanistan for the long haul
despite the endgame in the war. Its priority is to ensure that the spillover
from across the Amu Darya doesn't jeopardize Uzbekistan's security. Working
with the US and NATO will help earn political capital. Besides, providing
logistical support to the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan pays well. Russian
companies are doing splendidly by leasing giant Antonov airlifters to the US
for hauling cargo to Afghanistan. Uzbekistan hopes to get a slice of the
business spin-off from Afghan reconstruction.
The bottom line is that Washington shouldn't even think of any "regime change"
in Tashkent. Two, Washington should recognize Tashkent as the key Central Asian
capital. The US should heed Uzbek concerns with regard to regional stability in
Central Asia. Uzbekistan feels peeved that Kazakhstan has steadily outstripped
it as the regional power.
All this may seem too much. Can Obama indeed meet Karimov's exacting standards
of partnership? But US and Uzbek interests do converge at one level.
Uzbekistan's strategic location makes it an excellent gateway for the expansion
of US influence into Central Asia. Tashkent, on its part, has fancied that a
stable Afghanistan may provide it with an outlet to the world market, bypassing
Russian territory. Tashkent felt the need to open high-level political contacts
with the Taliban regime in Kabul in the 1990s.
The Bill Clinton administration cleverly pandered to Uzbek aspirations and
encouraged Tashkent to deal with the Taliban. Obama's "smart" policy picks up
from where Clinton left.
But a fundamental contradiction remains insofar as other Central Asian
countries resent Tashkent's aspirations of regional hegemony.
... but outwitted by Moscow Unsurprisingly, Moscow has prioritized its ties with Bishkek and Dushanbe.
Although Uzbekistan is a much bigger country, from the perspective of the
Afghan problem (and regional security), Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are vital
assets. A base in southern Kyrgyzstan enables Moscow to hold the region's
jugular veins, apart from insulating Bishkek and Dushanbe from their Uzbek Big
Brother. Kazakhstan has acquiesced with the Russian move.
Moscow has offered a US$1 billion assistance package for Bishkek. During his
visit to Dushanbe last week, Medvedev hinted at Russia undertaking "new big
projects" in Central Asia similar to the massive Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric
project, which he inaugurated. Medvedev said, "Russia places great value on its
friendly relations with Tajikistan, our strategic partner and ally ... We are
drawing up a number of new agreements on cooperation in the energy sector and
in geological prospecting. We expect productive new decisions from our
governments and from the inter-governmental commission which will hold its
tenth meeting in Dushanbe in September."
In principle, the Russian approach giving primacy to economic cooperation with
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is sound. But Russia's capacity to bankroll the
Central Asian economies is severely limited. At any rate, the success of the
Kremlin's strategy to expand its military influence in Central Asia is directly
linked to the CSTO's cohesion. And without Uzbekistan's active participation,
the CSTO lacks bite.
Therefore, last week's developments push the CSTO into a twilight zone. The
dynamics within the CSTO have been affected. Russia's dominance within the CSTO
continues, but its capacity to lead the CSTO is coming under threat from the
numerous pulls and strains involving member countries. In turn, this can impact
on the security situation in Central Asia.
China will be worried. A commentary by the People's Daily lamented that the
CSTO had failed to take a unified stance in the face of NATO's "increasing
infiltration into the region", which "called for an urgent need to transform
the group [CSTO] from a political-military alliance into a multi-functional
international organization". In Beijing's view, Russia can effectively ward off
the "Westernization of its neighboring countries" only through an open approach
rather than through brazen jostling for military influence.
The commentary concluded with some friendly criticism: "[The] CSTO could grow
and develop steadily on the international stage only when it attaches
importance to its member countries' concerns in the social, economic and
security sectors, cooperates with other international organizations and gains
international recognition in fighting drugs and weapon-smuggling, as well as
the sharing of security information."
But then, China has its ways of doing things, and so has Russia.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.