Last week saw an intensification of Russia’s diplomacy in strategic Central Asia. On June 17, the leaders of Russia, China, and four Central Asian nations met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to raise the profile of their security grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This gathering was immediately followed by the back-to-back summits in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Community (EEC). Moscow and its allies signed deals to strengthen economic ties and expand military cooperation.
According to media reports, the leaders of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan discussed regional security and agreed to intensify military contacts, increasing the Collective Security Treaty’s rapid reaction forces. They also signed accords on adopting unified laws, circulation of securities and regulating banking activity within the EEC. Moscow appears intent on regaining its strategic influence in Central Asia – the region where Russia, as many commentators claim, has been in steady retreat following the events of September 11, 2001 and the growing US military presence, particularly in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. “Russia has serious and long-term interests in the East,” asserts a recent policy paper prepared by Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika think tank.
Several policy goals underlie Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest major diplomatic swing through Central Asia, regional analysts contend. It would appear that Putin, while playing down the multi-polar world rhetoric, is in fact actively pursuing this objective, creating a system of counter balances to the American presence in Central Asia. The SCO, which includes a rapidly growing giant – China – is said to be a key element of this system. A number of Russian experts note with satisfaction the remarkable progress in SCO institutionalization. Analysts maintain that opening headquarters of the SCO’s Regional Anti-terrorist Center in Tashkent is a step in the right direction, adding that now the SCO is not an amorphous structure that functions only during its summits.
Moscow’s other strategic interest is to see the rapid creation of a single economic space within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). “We are creating real instruments of integration. It’s not just talk,” Putin said in Astana. In the words of the Russian leader, CIS countries “are now working to restore what was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union but are doing it on a new, modern basis.” Significantly, Putin claimed a leading role for Russia in Eurasian cooperation, stating, “Russia is the very center of Eurasia.” It is also remarkable that Putin chose to address a conference of international experts at Astana’s Lev Gumilev University which focused on Eurasian integration and globalization. Putin said the ideas of Gumilev, who founded neo-Eurasianism based on the idea of a united Eurasia in opposition to the transatlantic West, “are beginning to move the masses.” He added, “Of course destroying is not the same as building. But there is a common understanding that protection from external threats and increasing global competition is possible through common intellectual potential and united efforts.” Echoing Putin, EEC General Secretary Grigorii Rapota asserted, “Today the EEC can without exaggeration be regarded as an acting model of the future Eurasian Union of states.”
Russia is also interested in intensifying military-political cooperation with Central Asian nations. Kremlin strategists seem particularly happy with the new Treaty on Strategic Cooperation signed by Putin and his Uzbek counterpart President Islam Karimov. The accord envisages, among other things, Russia’s participation in the modernization of Uzbek armed forces, including the country’s air defense system. The Russian president has tellingly labeled the results of his talks with Karimov as a “true breakthrough in the quality of our relationship.” Many Russian analysts note that Uzbekistan appears to have become disillusioned with prospects for cooperation with the West and, above all, with the US. Analysts also note that Tashkent has become disenchanted with the consequences of the western-led anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, which failed to stop the process of destabilization in the region.
For its part, Russia was very keen to present itself as an active political player in Central Asia, participating in all ongoing processes there, including the Afghan settlement. Inviting Hamid Karzai, head of the Afghan transitional administration, as a guest at the SCO summit, marked this strategic objective. As one commentary noted, Putin’s Central Asian tour should be viewed as an important component of Russia’s strategy, aimed at preserving its influence in the post-Soviet space. Counting on America’s preoccupation with other world regions, Moscow appears bent on asserting its geopolitical leadership in Central Eurasia (Strana.ru, Politcom.ru, Vremya novostei, May 17, 18, Kommersant, May 17, 18, Trud, May 21).