On January 11, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha announced an initiative to convene a top-level meeting of regional organizations operating in Central Eurasia, including the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (Interfax, RIA-Novosti, January 11).
He urged discussion of issues of shared concern, notably illegal migration and trafficking in drugs and weapons. However, Bordyuzha said that the CSTO was yet to receive a reaction from the OSCE and the SCO, while the CIS had responded positively. He also voiced hope that the SCO would respond during a meeting of top officials in February or March this year (Interfax, Itar-Tass, January 11).
Bordyuzha’s initiative did not come as a complete surprise, because the CSTO, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, has overlapping membership with the four other organizations.
In recent months, the Russia-dominated CSTO pledged to boost ties with the SCO. In December 2007, Bordyuzha met with SCO Deputy General Secretary Gao Yusheng in Moscow. Both sides agreed to sign a comprehensive plan of joint action in early 2008, during a meeting in Beijing between Bordyuzha and SCO Secretary General Bolat Nurgaliev. During the December meeting, Bordyuzha also advocated coordinated action between the CSTO and the SCO to achieve shared foreign policy goals.
While the CSTO has been pushing for closer ties with the SCO for quite some time, Bordyuzha’s suggestions of closer formal cooperation with the other regional groupings indicates the CSTO’s pro-active policy.
Furthermore, the CSTO pledged to continue its military build-up. The CSTO peace-keeping forces may become operational in 2008, as soon as all member states ratify all four agreements needed to create the forces, Bordyuzha stated on January 11. He also said that the CSTO planned to create a joint institution in order to coordinate efforts to tackle emergency situations (Interfax, January 11).
The CSTO has long been interested in creating peace-keeping forces. In May 2007, the CSTO indicated plans to form a joint army group in addition to the existing CSTO rapid deployment forces. The CSTO joint army group would aim to neutralize possible terrorist attacks, particularly coming from Afghanistan, Bordyuzha announced earlier this year.
The existing CSTO forces hold regular maneuvers on the different terrains of the grouping’s member states. The CSTO also plans to hold the next round of war games, entitled “Frontier-2008,” in August this year in Armenia, in an apparent affront to the pro-Western governments of neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan.
In the meantime, CSTO officials conceded that membership in the grouping has sparked little interest among other countries. No other state has indicated its intention to join the CSTO so far, hence enlargement of the organization is not expected any time soon, Bordyuzha said. However, he also suggested relying on the CIS potential to expand the CSTO activities (Interfax, January 11).
Moscow has been trying to present the CSTO as an important international organization. Simultaneously, the CSTO and Russian officials have been critical of what they consider to be NATO’s failure to treat the CSTO as an equal partner. In December 2007, Moscow suggested an agreement between the CSTO and NATO on military transit to Afghanistan.
Although the CSTO was supposed to be focused on the security of member states, the grouping unexpectedly suggested a formal visa-free regime. Bordyuzha also announced that the CSTO would work to set up a so-called Eurasian Schengen Zone. “This work will be done by the CSTO, with the assistance of the EurAsEc,” he said, adding that the task would require amending a number of border guard and customs regulations (Interfax, January 11).
Most CSTO and CIS member states still sustain visa-free regimes on a reciprocal basis. However, many of them have introduced additional requirements for travelers, including duration limits for visa-free visits and penalties for overstaying the time limits.
Meanwhile, Russian experts warned that the initiative could provoke unwanted consequences. The proposed Eurasian Schengen Zone is likely to be used by illegal labor migrants in a bid to enter Russia, said Vladimir Anokhin, deputy head of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, a Moscow-based think-tank (RBK Daily, January 14).
While the Kremlin continues its efforts to boost the CSTO’s clout, the policy may also entail some adverse repercussions for Russia’s economic interests, notably encouraging a new influx of illegal migrant workers.