At the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Moscow on September 5, Central Asian leaders once again avoided supporting Russia’s recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence. As at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit on August 28, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were stripped of much of their anticipated support from the Central Asian member states. Largely thanks to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who showed his reluctance to take a pro-Kremlin position as the war in South Ossetia broke out between Russian and Georgian troops a month ago, his regional neighbors were careful about words of support for Russia.
Although the CSTO member states signed a formal declaration approving Russia’s military campaign in Georgia, it did not mention recognition of the independence of Georgia’s secessionist territories. Nevertheless, the CSTO meeting was concluded with general remarks that its member states condemned the Georgian government’s aggression and approved Russia’s peacekeeping efforts (www.leta.ru, September 5). The declaration further called on NATO to abstain from Eastern expansion and installment of new air defense systems.
That Moscow hoped for a more approving response from CSTO members was obvious from a preceding offer to Uzbekistan to double gas prices (up to $307 per square meters from the current $160) and a promise to help Armenia build a railroad (www.CA-news.kg, www.Politcom.ru, September 3). Originally, the summit was planned in Bishkek, the current chair of CIS, but it was rescheduled to Moscow at Russia’s insistence.
The summit once again demonstrated that Russia uses the CSTO selectively; while sending its troops to Georgia without consulting with its member states, it expected their approval after the fact.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and, to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan’s need to sustain a diplomatic balance between China and Russia is another important factor in refusing to support Russia. An attempt to expose pro-Western attitudes is not the most imperative reason in this game, one analyst in Dushanbe thinks, it is rather Beijing’s firm, yet subtle, refusal to back any secessionist moods in Central Asia (interview with Jamestown, September 6). By overlooking recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Central Asian states were not leaning toward the West but rather were escaping Moscow’s pressure, the analyst concludes.
As the conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia, many experts were cautious about the reaction of the Central Asian states, especially about whether Kazakhstan in particular would distance itself from the West should Moscow prevail in the war. Similar worries now persist with regard to the upcoming CIS summit in Bishkek on November 10. Medvedev will visit Bishkek in October 8 to discuss economic and trade issues, as well as the status of Kyrgyz labor migrants in Russia; Bakiyev will visit Belarus a few days later. Medvedev is expected to offer Kyrgyzstan assistance in managing the aggravating crisis in the energy sector in exchange for approving Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The issue of Georgia’s exit from the CIS will be discussed at the summit in November as well.
Few political leaders in Kyrgyzstan rushed to express their support for Russia while the government remained quiet, and Bakiyev has shown at both the CSTO and SCO summits that Kazakhstan is of a far greater importance to him. Kyrgyzstan will depend vitally on Kazakhstan’s supplies of natural gas and electricity this coming winter. On September 10 Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov announced that Kyrgyzstan would be able to escape a winter crisis if the government closed a contract with Kazakhstan on electricity supplies. Though these supplies will be at higher rates than before, Bakiyev needs to prevent escalation of tension among local public that has not seen an electricity crisis such as this since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Tajikistan, in turn, received urgently needed humanitarian aid from Kazakhstan last winter as well. As an organization, the CSTO failed to support Tajikistan during its winter crisis in 2007-2008, despite its recently created division dealing with emergencies and natural disasters.
Both the SCO and CSTO summits, as well as Nazarbayev’s proven regional leadership, set a new trend within Central Asia. For the past few years Kazakhstan was mooted to be an emerging regional leader on a potentially equal footing with China and Russia. The summits have shown this in practice, setting expectations for a further increase of Nazarbayev’s regional influence.