“CORF [Collective Operational Reaction forces] will be no worse than NATO,” claimed Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, only one year ago. Today, these words are used in Russia to popularize the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the CORF within the post-Soviet space. They are also invoked at a time when the CSTO “alliance” is increasingly viewed as an ineffective organization after its failure to enforce order in Kyrgyzstan and to operate on the basis of trust and shared values. The CSTO summit, held in Yerevan on August 25, clearly highlighted the need for organizational reform, this time even prompting Medvedev to call for the study of NATO’s experience to boost the CSTO’s capabilities (www.rian.ru, August 21, 23; www.inosmi.ru, August 24). Yet, strained relations among the CSTO members will continue to keep the organization half dead and half alive for some time to come.
The utility of the CSTO came to the test when the organization was confronted by the conflict between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the Fergana Valley in June. Referring to the CSTO charter calling for collective defense against an external attack, the organization did not intervene in Kyrgyzstan, despite pleas from the interim government and dire circumstances that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced (www.caspianweekly.org, August 26; www.dknews.kz, September 3). Suspicions about the Russian military presence in the region, the likely inability of the Russian forces themselves to address the crisis, and a wait-and-see mentality most likely influenced the decision not to proceed with the intervention.
However, the CSTO was in crisis well before the instability in Kyrgyzstan. Thus, none of its member states besides Russia –Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan– recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008. Nor did all of them support the creation of the CORF, with Belarus at one point and Uzbekistan still refusing to sign up for what they consider to be a Russian initiative seeking to exercise political and military dominance over the newly independent states. The leaders of the two countries did not attend CSTO summits in 2009 and 2010 over disagreements with Moscow, because of Russia’s “milk war” with Belarus and its support for hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (www.inosmi.ru, August 24; www.dknews.kz, September 3; www.ferghana.ru, May 23).
Minsk and Moscow have also waged a “gas” and “information” war, while Tashkent has continued opposing the CORF out of fear for its sovereignty. Uzbekistan quit the organization in 1999 and then rejoined it in 2006 following the Andijan crisis and the associated criticism by the West. It is noteworthy that the former Soviet-controlled countries of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova either left or never joined the organization, positioning themselves in the pro-Western GUUAM coalition (or G.U.A.M. when Uzbekistan switched membership) (www.paruskg.info, August 21; www.inosmi.ru, August 26; www.caspianweekly.org, August 26; www.ferghana.ru, May 23).
Bilateral and regional tensions among the CSTO members are clearly straining the “alliance.” In Central Asia, the regional states have serious disagreements, accompanied by mining borders, water issues, and transportation blockades. They also have uneasy but necessary security and economic relations with Russia, which provides them with energy and defense subventions (www.ferghana.ru, October 26, 2009). Recently, Dushanbe has fruitlessly pressed Moscow to pay rent for the use of its military base in Tajikistan, while the recently deposed Kyrgyz regime successfully secured large Russian grants, but reportedly refused to close the US base at Manas in exchange (www.inosmi.ru, April 8, August 24; www.eurasianhome.org, October 23, 2009).
The CSTO members also face a complex situation in the South Caucasus. Armenia and Azerbaijan disagree over Karabakh, with Baku appearing capable of regaining the territories (lost in the Armenian-Azerbaijan war in the 1990’s) by military force. Meanwhile, Russia agreed to a joint military defense of Armenia in case of external aggression as part of a bilateral agreement signed on August 19-20. The deal also extends the lease for its military base in Armenia, home to 5,000 troops, until 2044. However, it is less obvious how CSTO members will respond to any potential crises in the South Caucasus where the regional states have sought good relations with virtually all CSTO member states, despite Medvedev’s statement that “a number of negative trends are being contained due to the presence of the CSTO” in the post-Soviet space (www.rian.ru, August 21; www.inosmi.ru, August 24, 26; www.dknews.kz, September 3; www.ferghana.ru, May 23).
The CSTO summit, which the Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, avoided for the second time this year, called for organizational reform. According to Medvedev, the CSTO will “possibly” assume “expanded powers” to address potential crises. The parties will consider related proposals at the next summit in December 2010 in Minsk, where Belarus President, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, granted the overthrown president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, protection from the extradition request by another CSTO member-state, Kyrgyzstan (www.paruskg.info, August 21; www.rian.ru, August 23; www.inosmi.ru, August 24).
The functioning of the CSTO is evidently flawed. Cooperation within the “alliance” is driven by the need to appease Russia, to keep authoritarian regimes in power, and to offer a semblance of a security organization capable of countering NATO rather than by the commitment to exercise truly collective security rooted in trust and convergent interests. Moreover, while there may be shared threats, there are no shared values. This is unlike NATO, where members do not have strikingly opposing interests and are bound by their joint commitment to freedom, human rights, and security. Equally, it is internal socio-economic problems and state failure that are more likely to undermine the security of the CSTO members today (www.inosmi.ru, August 24; www.ferghana.ru, October 26, 2009; www.dknews.kz, September 3; www.ferghana.ru, May 23).
Yet, the organization is not entirely useless, especially in light of possible reforms. External threats against the CSTO, for instance, are not inconceivable. Such threats exist, such as drug-trafficking and terrorism, the Pakistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Central Asia, or possible foreign militants operating in the North Caucasus. Furthermore, the CSTO states are known to have coordinated security measures during events in Afghanistan in 1996 and in 1998. They also assisted Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1999 and in 2000 when the IMU attempted to infiltrate and destabilize the region (www.inosmi.ru, August 24; www.ferghana.ru, October 26, 2009, May 23, 2010). However, until CSTO member states fundamentally rethink their foreign policy approaches and the logic of cooperation within the organization, the CSTO will continue to remain in a protracted coma.