Views on the future of Central Asia’s security differ within the region and beyond. And there are also major differences within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) itself. These differences have long existed, though more recently they were brought into focus by Uzbekistan’s suspension of its CSTO membership and the late July security crisis in eastern Tajikistan. Following a meeting in Minsk on July 31 between the Secretary General of the CSTO Nikolai Bordyuzha and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the latter pointedly raised both issues. Lukashenka considered that the situation in eastern Tajikistan merited a response from the CSTO, and the Belarusian leader noted that a decision was needed by all members in response to Tashkent’s suspension of its membership in the body (Interfax, August 10, July 31).
Lukashenka’s remarks require some defragmenting in order to understand his themes as well as the depth of the internal crisis facing the CSTO. First, Lukashenka asked Bordyuzha to inform other CSTO leaders about Tashkent’s decision, and then he added, “You have also met with the Russian leaders. You know their position.” Highlighting the serious nature of the crisis, the Belarusian president noted, “It is a restless time. We need to respond if we are a normal organization. The time has probably come to test our stability” (Interfax, July 31).
Moreover, Lukashenka referred to negative tendencies in security among CSTO members, saying “tensions are escalating,” while “Tajikistan is just reflecting this tendency toward a negative scenario” (Interfax, July 31). Although it might appear odd that Lukashenka asked the CSTO Secretary General to brief the presidents of other CSTO members, it reflects the fact that Tashkent sent its diplomatic note of suspension to the CSTO secretariat in Moscow; formal notification to the heads of member states must come from Moscow. Bordyuzha is also aware of the Kremlin’s position or reaction to Tashkent’s decision, though this stance is apparently not widely known. Finally, since there is no legal mechanism for Tashkent to suspend membership, all members must consider and formulate a joint response. The implication is that the real CSTO crisis is yet to come, and Moscow is actively preparing for it.
In fact, some elements of Bordyuzha’s comments indicate that Moscow may accept the full exit of Uzbekistan from the CSTO in December 2012. On the issue of the security crisis in Tajikistan, Bordyuzha said that the CSTO will avoid sending troops. The events in Tajikistan were a domestic issue and would not require “intervention by any collective force,” though “material” assistance was not ruled out for Tajikistan’s army and police (Interfax, July 31).
However, despite initial attempts by CSTO officials to downplay Uzbekistan’s suspension of membership, Bordyuzha stated categorically that Tashkent’s decision will have a negative impact on Central Asian security. Damage to the CSTO, linked to Uzbekistan’s actions, is mainly related to the “information sphere,” as Bordyuzha noted that it sparked numerous articles critical of the organization and its future. “There will be consequences for Uzbekistan, too, because solving problems alone will be very difficult. But Uzbekistan itself made this decision,” the Secretary General said, adding, “On the other hand, there will now be six states to take necessary measures to offset the negative consequences. There have been relevant proposals” (Interfax, July 31).
Public recognition by senior Russian and CSTO officials that Uzbekistan’s full withdrawal –which has not yet happened – from the organization would be damaging to Central Asian security is in marked contrast to early reactions to the decision. Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, Army General Nikolai Makarov explained that Moscow had anticipated Tashkent’s move, but his comments stressed the negative implications it might have as the organization prepares to strengthen its capabilities in the future. Vladimir Mukhin explored some of these issues in an article in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye. Moscow, in Mukhin’s view, stands to lose access to a number of Uzbekistani military facilities and infrastructure, which would hamper the CSTO during any military operations; though these never functioned as CSTO facilities. Mukhin notes that Uzbekistan possesses “relatively modern” command structures, modern military airfields in Chirchik, Tashkent, Kokayty, Khanabad and Bukhara, as well as three defense institutes in Chirchik, Tashkent and Samarkand and a training center in Termez. During the Tajik Civil War in the 1990s, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan sent military forces, but this never occurred under the banner of the Collective Security Treaty (CST), and Tashkent later recalled non-action by the CST during the militant incursions in 1999 and 2000. In short, when a real security crisis occurs in Central Asia, the response is mostly unilateral or sometimes bilateral, but nothing beyond this. The organization also has no record of collective action, “The CSTO has existed and continues to exist to this day, but in essence only virtually. Military exercises are conducted, the combined headquarters operates, and some documents are adopted. And that is all,” Mukhin explains (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 2).
Mukhin, like other Russian military analysts, had linked Tashkent’s suspension of its CSTO membership to possible future foreign basing rights on its territory. He also concluded that following the completion of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, Uzbekistan will find itself more challenged by Islamic extremism and Taliban-linked militant activity. Yet, Tashkent’s recently publicized Concept on Foreign Policy includes banning foreign bases in the country; whatever its actual reasons were, suspending CSTO membership had nothing to do with cozying up to western powers (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 2).
Considered from the perspectives of Minsk or Moscow, Uzbekistan remaining out of the CSTO in the future will damage its own as well as regional security. It is clear this view is not shared in Uzbekistan, and any perceived lowering of its security capabilities will not demand bridging the gap by hosting a foreign military base. Indeed, there is no sign of panic in Tashkent about the NATO withdrawal, and, as the most populous and strategically important Central Asian state in relation to Afghanistan, it is simply far-fetched to argue that it underestimates any potential bleed out from Afghanistan post 2014 in its security policy making. The underlying message of a CSTO without Uzbekistan post 2014 is that security issues in Central Asia will not be the business of multilateral organizations; a real crisis will be met unilaterally.