Russia’s reputation as a reliable security partner is currently growing within Central Asia, despite numerous efforts by Western countries to engage the region. Triggered in part by events such as the Beslan tragedy and an impetus toward closer cooperation between the Central Asian states and Russia through multilateral mechanisms such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), some of the sticking points in recent bilateral security issues are moving towards compromise and acceptable solutions. Moreover, as a sign of how far and rapidly Russia’s reputation as a security provider is growing within the region, it is widely anticipated that it will be formally invited into membership of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) at its summit in Dushanbe, which commences on October 18. Even the mere fact that Russia has been invited to attend the summit suggests that Moscow’s once rather lackluster reputation in Tashkent, for instance, has shifted in recent times (Khovar News Agency, October 12).
In fact, it is quite fitting that Dushanbe should host a summit that may signify Russia’s entry into this important regional body, since its bilateral security issues are equally evolving in a new spirit of cooperation. Dushanbe has resisted Russian efforts to secure the transformation of its long-term deployment of the 201st Motor Rifle Division (MRD) into a full, permanent Russian base. This has also been complicated further by Dushanbe’s linkage of the future of the 201st MRD in Tajikistan to its own debts, hoping to have some of its $300 million debt to Russia written off in return. Moreover, Tajikistan’s insistence that it wants Russian Federal Border Guards to leave the country, leaving its own weak and under-funded, poorly trained border service to man the Tajik-Afghan border, has proven a source of friction between the two sides. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made an agreement in principle with President Imomali Rakhmonov, which will allow a continued Russian military presence on Tajik soil; its details are currently being refined. Senior officers in the Russian air force expect an aviation component to be deployed in Dushanbe in support of the 201st MRD, after finalizing an agreement on basing rights. In this regard it appears that Moscow is not working to a pre-determined blueprint, but wants to be regarded by its Central Asian partners as listening to their security concerns (Novye izvestiya, October 4; Itar-Tass, October 7).
Acknowledging the concerns of the Central Asian republics will go a long way to reassuring the political and security elites in each regional capital that there is a new sense of respect and sympathy in Moscow’s Central Asian diplomacy. Certain traces of this can be seen in other developments in Russia’s bilateral relations with these states. Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev conveyed his positive impression of recent CSTO military exercises during a meeting with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister. Akayev particularly emphasized his high evaluation of Russia’s role in the CSTO’s Rubezh-2004 military exercises and revealed a new level of confidence in military-technical cooperation with Russia (Kyrgyz Television First Channel, October 12).
Taken together, these seemingly small advances in Moscow’s standing are hardly surprising. Aspects of the specific mechanisms through which it is occurring are unpredictable. The CACO is traditionally viewed as a means to foster economic cooperation in Central Asia, but it is also placing terrorism, border security, and drug trafficking on its cooperative agenda. Energy and transportation factors are pushing Tajikistan into exploring deeper ties with Russia, but the impact of these areas can equally spill over into security cooperation. It will be one more forum in which ideas and plans may be exchanged and considered, promoting a positive veneer on Russia’s dealings with its partners in the region.
Some analysts in the region’s capitals remain wary of a re-assertive Russia, remembering the endless paper agreements that marred the past history of the Collective Security Treaty in the 1990s. Real action will be needed, convincing skeptics that Moscow can take practical steps to transform the region’s security environment. Nonetheless, efforts to dislodge the traditionally strong bond of identity and similarity between the Central Asian and Russian militaries are rooted in a failure to appreciate their military cultures. Each country is destined to depend on Russia for the foreseeable future for spare parts, technical assistance, and equipment upgrades. Kazakhstan looks to receive attack helicopters from the United States, though it also has a less-publicized deal to procure helicopters from the Kazan company in Russia, serving as one clear illustration of the way in which they attempt to maximize their assistance options, while relying on the uncontroversial step of receiving further aid from Russia.
Central Asian political leaders are skilled in their efforts to enhance U.S. and Western security assistance programs. Geopolitical reality cannot, however, escape the fact that Russia borders the region and shares many security concerns. Russia’s entry into CACO, while promoting its interests through the CSTO and SCO, combined with higher levels of practical bilateral activities are being warmly welcomed in Central Asia as confirmation of a fact known in Moscow for some time: Russia will not go away.