The issue of naming a new secretary general of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has become another bone of contention between supposed allies Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The alliance’s heretofore formal head, General Yuri Khachaturov, a former chief of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, was officially recalled from his post by Yerevan on November 2, due to his participation in a violent crackdown of opposition protests in Armenia back in 2008. The circumstances surrounding picking Khachaturov’s replacement have once again highlighted the profound disunity of Russia’s treaty allies (Lenta.ru, November 3).
Tensions mounted soon after the November 8 meeting, in Astana, Kazakhstan, of the CSTO Collective Security Council—the organization’s supreme decision-making body, represented by the heads of the six member countries. The objectives for the Astana meeting were to discuss inter alia security issues related to Afghanistan, the establishment of a coordination council for the standardization of military equipment, as well as the approval of institutional amendments that would permit the CSTO to offer “observer” and “partner” statuses to non-members (Astanatimes.com, November 10). In their final declaration, the CSTO leaders also formulated a collective response toward the United States’ professed intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as well as expressed firm support for Russia’s activities in Syria (Odkb-csto.org, November 8). However, the sore point in the deliberation was the designation of a new secretary general, which sparked reciprocal criticism among the allies even as Russia largely remained silent on the issue.
Although Armenia had recalled its selection for CSTO secretary general (chosen by the previous government in Yerevan), it nevertheless insists that an Armenian representative must be allowed to hold the post until 2020, when General Khachaturov’s term would have ended. Kazakhstan and Belarus, however, disagree. Noting that the final decision is yet to be made at the forthcoming December 6 St. Petersburg summit, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev demanded that the rotational principle set forth in the CSTO regulations be upheld. Specifically, he advocated that Belarus should now be eligible to nominate its candidate for a new secretary general, as it is next, after Armenia, in alphabetical order. It would make little sense to install another candidate from Armenia, who would serve for only a year, Nazarbayev posited (TASS, November 8).
On November 12, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka met with the Azerbaijani ambassador to Minsk, in anticipation of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s coming trip to Belarus (which occurred on November 19). Reportedly, Lukashenka relayed to Azerbaijan’s envoy certain details of the closed-door discussions held during the recent CSTO Collective Security Council session and concluded that he has “three candidates for the secretary general role from Belarus.” This revelation triggered sharp censure from Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s interim prime minister. Pashinyan declared he “will demand clarifications [from Lukashenka] concerning the discussion of internal CSTO affairs with [non-member] Azerbaijan.” Pashinyan noted that the classified format of deliberations between treaty allies is an underlying principle in politico-military organizations, and he criticized Nazarbayev for backing Belarus (News.am, November 17).
The Belarusian foreign ministry rebuked the new Armenian head of government, declaring, “Perhaps, Pashinyan has not yet realized that the rules of so-called street democracy are not acceptable in big politics” (Tut.by, November 17). In turn, Pashinyan heatedly alluded to Lukashenka’s regime being a “dictatorship” and virtually accused Belarus of explicitly colluding with Azerbaijan against Armenia (Aravot.am, November 20).
Concurrently, Armenia’s acting Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan asserted that the premature recall of Armenia’s representative from the top CSTO post “does not mean that another Armenian official loses the legitimate right to occupy the vacant position” (TASS, November 16). Mnatsakanyan later added that the alliance’s normative regulations refer to member states rather than to individuals, and hence “Armenia is eager” to fill the vacant secretary general post with a “relevant candidate” (Mfa.am, November 20). This statement implies Yerevan may seek to apply its veto or even threaten to pull out of the CSTO altogether. Separately augmented by the increasingly ambivalent Russia-Belarus relationship (see EDM, October 23, 30), Armenia’s growing boldness to take firm positions regarding its national interests may escalate the inter-state frictions apparent within the Moscow-led regionalist structures.
Almost none of the CSTO members consented to Armenia’s new candidate for secretary general— conspicuously, including Russia. On one hand, Moscow’s stance may have been driven by a desire to “punish” Yerevan for the detention and prosecution of Yuri Khachaturov—who is loyal to Putin—as well as for Pashinyan’s bold rhetoric more generally. But on the other hand, Moscow may want to position Stanislav Zas, Belarus’s Security Council secretary, to take the reins of the CSTO as its secretary general (Kommersant, November 4). Some Belarusian experts believe that this would provide the Kremlin additional leverage over Minsk considering Zas’s (widely deemed Lukashenka’s “valuable asset”) consistent efforts to successfully impede Russia’s ability to boost its military presence and influence in Belarus (Top-center.org, November 15).
The fact that neutral Azerbaijan appears to exercise more influence within the CSTO than member Armenia highlights the systemic problems inside this organization. Moscow, with its regional military infrastructure and post-colonial attitudes, is the only factor uniting the alliance’s member states, which all have contrasting interests and values. As an institutional vehicle for legitimizing Russia’s self-declared zone of privileged influence over the post-Soviet space, the CSTO lacks both common values and a shared strategic vision to unite its members as well as ensure internal cohesion. The persistent crises amongst its members (see EDM, February 15, 2017; June 14, 2018; June 19, 2018) have come to epitomize the profound unsuitability of the CSTO as a regional stabilizing platform and have further degraded its international credibility.
The rhetoric coming from Armenia’s political elite suggests Yerevan is determined to turn the page on its post-Soviet political era, which heretofore had been marked by an oligarchic-leaning, corrupt autocracy and subservience vis-à-vis Russia. That domestic political shift in Armenia, combined with the unrelenting disputes inside the CSTO (as described above), are progressively turning the organization into a “pseudo-alliance” with only nominal commitments by its members to defend one another in the event of outside aggression. Russia’s more than $5 billion worth of lethal arms sales to Azerbaijan, to the detriment of its CSTO ally Armenia—along with similar actions by Belarus and Kazakhstan—certainly buttress this argument, especially from Yerevan’s point of view. Therefore, the eventual dissolution of the CSTO may be just a matter of time. In such a case, Armenia might find it reasonable to leave this club, though almost certainly while seeking to maintain its strategic bilateral link to Russia.