Recent events within Central Asia, ranging from maneuvers toward Western military deployment in Kyrgyzstan to political statements from Bishkek indicating the intention of closer security integration with Russia, coupled with accusations from Uzbek officials that Kazakhstan is harboring terrorists, highlight the complexity of post-9/11 security dynamics within the region and the predisposition of many key players to look towards Moscow for solutions to these problems. In this context, as former Soviet republics recognize both the weakness of CIS collective security and the limitations of Western assistance, many are looking at Russia as a guarantor of regional stability.
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Minister, Askar Aitmatov, said on February 14 that the United States and NATO had approached the Kyrgyz government concerning the possibility of deploying AWACS surveillance aircraft in Kyrgyzstan. Aitmatov confirmed that the offer had been rejected after close consultations with Kyrgyzstan’s allies within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), clearly implying opposition from other Central Asian states, Russia, and China. General Vladimir Mikhailov, Russian Air Force Chief, confirmed on February 10 Moscow’s plan to double the size of its military commitment to its airbase in Kant, 20 kilometers east of Bishkek. This move demonstrated the apparent ease with which Moscow can secure agreement from Bishkek on security matters and provides further proof of Moscow’s security credentials in the region.
Similarly, within two days, Aitmatov suggested that security cooperation should be stepped up “primarily with Russia by implementing agreements under the CSTO and strengthening the contractual and legal base aimed at further strengthening the collective security system in Central Asia.” The official Kyrgyz government position, open to cooperation with Western countries on a bilateral basis and also with NATO, extends to regional multilateral bodies such as the CSTO and SCO, which Aitmatov believes should be strengthened at bilateral level — prioritizing Russia in the process. It could be an indication of nervousness on the part of the Kyrgyz that regional partners, as well as interested great powers, have reservations about the continued Western military presence within the country and alarm triggered by any hint of increased openness to Western initiatives.
Yet, underlying these concerns in Bishkek has been the reappearance of the ugly side of the Kazakh-Uzbek regional rivalry. Senior Uzbek officials accused their neighbor of harboring terrorists, which Astana flatly denied.
Unfortunately the allegations came from Uzbekistan’s General Vyacheslav Kasymov, Director of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) of the SCO headquartered in Tashkent. This has left Beijing and Moscow in the middle of an embarrassing regional row. Kasymov was quite emphatic: “In our activity we take advantage of all methods of fighting terrorism: intelligence, counterintelligence and operational-investigatory, search, and military operations.” Placing the RATS at the center of assertions of Kazakhstani involvement in contributing to the regional problem of terrorism has raised fears in Moscow that the organization itself was being undermined in the process. Notably, when the denial came, it appeared from within the RATS infrastructure itself: duly issued by Beksultan Sarsekov, the Kazakhstani RATS representative and Kasymov’s deputy.
Simultaneously, CIS security structures, long under suspicion of being a paper tiger rather than an effective mechanism to promote security in the former Soviet space, appear weakened still further. Speculation has grown in Moscow that the CIS collective defense system has begun to disintegrate. This has shown itself in the imminent abolition of the CIS Staff for Coordinating Military Cooperation (ShKVS). The proposal to abolish the ShKVS came from Astana. It is now anticipated that its formal abolition will be confirmed during the CIS summit in Kazan in August. Its architects, such as Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, see the move as a dangerous one that will only serve to weaken Russian influence throughout the former Soviet Union.
These developments serve to highlight both the complex nature of the continued evolution of Central Asian security dynamics and the regional quest for stability and potentially long-term sources of assistance. The whole process is undermined by the absence of genuine regional cooperation, revealed in the upsurge of rivalry between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Each state pounces on the initiatives of Western powers and multilateral organizations in order to promote its own case for winning the role of regional arbiter. In that vicious and unending cycle of accusation and counter accusation, while suggesting to international partners their general hopes for cooperation within Central Asia, China and Russia readily identify a political opportunity to counter growing Western influence.
Aitmatov’s call for Kyrgyzstan’s closer integration with Moscow should be seen in this specific context: there can be no genuine progress in Central Asian security until the rivalry between Astana and Tashkent can be set aside. Until then, weak states in the region can only look to Moscow to fill the void created by their own failed attempts to develop cooperative security.
(Itar-Tass, February 10; Vremya novosti, February 11; Nezavisimaya gazeta, Moscow, February 14; Kabar News Agency, February 16.)