This summer Kyrgyzstan plans to host the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) annual summit and assume its presidency. SCO members include China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; while India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan hold observer status. While this is a unique chance for Kyrgyzstan to promote its national interests within the organization’s framework, attract investment, and increase its leverage as a regional player, the Kyrgyz government’s plans may fall apart, as it faces considerable logistical and financial difficulties. The country’s turbulent and unpredictable domestic political situation may further complicate summit arrangements.
The SCO was formed in June 2001 on the basis of the Shanghai Five agreement, and its main agenda concentrated on border regulations with China’s immediate neighbors – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Following the Tashkent summit in June 2004, the SCO expanded its activities and established a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) to deal with transnational drug trafficking and insurgencies. Since 2003 the SCO has staged joint military exercises in Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Uzbekistan. After Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. military base from its territory and became a more active player in the organization in 2005, the SCO informally emerged as a regional political, security, and economic bloc to counter U.S. interest in the region. The SCO, similar to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, precludes Western intervention into the Central Asian states, Russia, and China in cases of instability.
The 2007 summit is tentatively scheduled for August 16 in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. On March 5, the mayor of Bishkek announced that terrorists might try to stage attacks against the Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Chinese delegations during the SCO summit. In May 2006, for example, Kyrgyz security forces had to respond to an attack by unidentified insurgents at the Tajik-Kyrgyz border (see EDM, May 23, 2006). Four Kyrgyz soldiers died in this one-day clash. Although Temir Sariyev, an MP and member of the opposition “For Reforms” bloc, concedes that terrorist acts are possible in Kyrgyzstan, he believes the government might try to inflate the threat to provide a cover story should government efforts to organize the summit fail.
The government also speculated that the newly formed opposition bloc “United Front,” led by former prime minister Felix Kulov, would be interested in disrupting the summit in order to undermine the president. At a March 5 press conference, Kulov publicly denied these allegations. The United Front’s official agenda is to organize early presidential elections. If the Front succeeds in undermining Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s hold on power before the summit, however, the event might be rescheduled. As the Institute for Public Policy (IPP), a Bishkek-based think tank, reports, the situation might resemble the 2000 summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, when security concerns almost canceled the holding of the SCO summit (IPP.kg).
IPP experts also report that Kyrgyzstan’s large budget for organizing the summit should be accompanied by the Kyrgyz government’s efforts to voice its interests and agenda clearly. At a minimum, the Kyrgyz government should present its plan for relieving its $2 billion external debt, especially after it refused to join the World Bank/IMF Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.
Importantly, Kyrgyzstan needs to formulate a clear position with regard to the U.S. military base in the Manas airport and how that is compatible with its SCO membership. This is necessary to prevent a strain in Kyrgyz-U.S. relations after the summit. Bakiyev must avoid a repetition of the situation that followed the July 2005 SCO summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, when he was pressured to request deadlines for the closure of the U.S. base. At the time, Bakiyev’s request showed that his government was unable to maintain balanced relations with the United States, Russia, and China.
The government wants to remove 700 homeless people and prostitutes from the streets of Bishkek during the summit and will introduce a special passport regime in the capital (24.kg, March 5). The highway from the Bishkek Manas airport to the city center will need to be renovated and extensive construction and renovation work needs to be done in the capital city itself; hotels and conference halls need to be built as well. In total, the Kyrgyz government will require between $5 million and $15 million to organize the summit. The financial burden will be so heavy that it could bankrupt Bishkek (Ipp.kg).
If Kyrgyzstan fails to stage the SCO summit this August, it will considerably undermine its role in regional security cooperation. It will show that domestic political turmoil prevents the country from being a reliable international partner. However, even if the Kyrgyz government manages to carry out the summit, it must formulate a succinct agenda regarding its security interests, domestic economic situation, and foreign policy. Given that Bakiyev’s month-old government already is facing criticism for corruption and lack of professionalism, the summit might turn into a waste of financial resources for Kyrgyzstan.