Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 110

On June 4 the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met in Astana to formally agree on an agenda for their upcoming summit, scheduled to be held in Kazakhstan’s capital July 5-6. Yet in addition to the organizational elements discussed, the meeting provided a forum within which the SCO’s foreign ministers could readily exchange views on the aftermath of the Uzbek security crackdown in Andijan. All parties avoided any possible criticism of the Karimov government, preferring instead to talk of possible future multilateral cooperation enabling the SCO to counteract terrorism and political extremism. What emerged clearly from the meeting in Astana is the extent to which security thinking and planning within the SCO has become firmly focused on Uzbekistan, dominating discussions, and set to top the agenda during the full summit in July.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, sought to widen the implications of the events in Uzbekistan to the region and beyond. “None of us want our countries to be attacked by extremists. That is why we always stress the importance of investigating the causes of the situation, including actions by people who wanted to use a difficult socio-economic situation to serve political ends,” he noted (NTV, June 4). He highlighted the economic environment as not only a background to Andijan, but also one readily exploited by those involved in promoting the unrest.

Lavrov’s mission in Astana seemed complex and contradictory, linking the individuals in Andijan that triggered the Uzbek security operation with Chechen “terrorists,” though carefully wording his allegation by saying that these points were currently being “double checked.” “We had reasons to mention the necessity of investigating the causes of the situation, including actions of those who wanted to take advantage of the complicated social and economic situation to solve political problems,” he added. The Russian foreign minister was most concerned to avoid any possible hint that the SCO could become an anti-democratic body, asserting that the “SCO has not become an anti-orange bloc” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, June 4).

Li Zhaoxing, China’s foreign minister, equally demonstrated that Beijing is very cautious about external pressure on the SCO to investigate or condemn the Uzbek government (Itar-Tass, June 4). Li believes that the response of the Uzbek authorities as well as the forthcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan are exclusively internal issues; at all costs China wants to minimize international, particularly U.S. pressure and influence within Central Asia and will continue to make use of the SCO as a mechanism for achieving such ends. He went on, “I am deeply convinced that the leaderships — the governments — and the peoples of the two countries have enough strength, political will, and decisiveness to resolve all their internal problems, as well as to facilitate the development of their own economies and improve living standards.” Li’s public affirmation of support for the preservation of the status quo in Uzbekistan is hardly surprising, but Beijing is short on concrete proposals on how the SCO can practically improve Central Asian security.

Indeed the SCO itself has produced numerous statements from its previous meetings, promoting the SCO’s security credentials within the region, amounting to little more than a mantra against “terrorism, separatism, extremism, and drug trafficking.” Apart from the creation of the anti-terrorist center based in Tashkent, the SCO has struggled to prove itself to its Central Asian clients, though they continue to enjoy the attention it receives from Russia and China in a less competitive format. Key constituencies within the region still support the SCO, and they are confident that the organization can and will bring greater security to the region.

Kasymzhomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, is convinced that the SCO is becoming more influential on an international level as well as within the region. In fact, Tokayev believes that next month’s SCO summit in Astana will witness “very important decisions,” though he cautions that all parties must be willing to implement such decisions (Interfax-Kazakhstan, June 4). Uzbekistan’s official reaction to these developments, as well as the possible strengthening of anti-terrorist cooperation at the Astana summit, has been rather lukewarm. Uzbek First Deputy Foreign Minister Ilhom Nematov restricted his public comments to simply affirming the high political value Tashkent places on the SCO.

The SCO is therefore preparing to enhance its role as a multilateral security body offering real assistance to the troubled Central Asian region. Andijan has served to highlight the necessity for its members to find practical solutions to security problems that will go beyond talk and generic platitudes about the need to cooperate. Opportunities also exist for the SCO to reach out, perhaps forming closer working links with NATO, for example. The participation of Iran, India, and Pakistan in the Astana summit allow observers to once again point to the future growth potential of the organization — but it will also have to find ways of preventing its detractors from asserting that the SCO exists as an “anti-orange bloc.” In this environment, the challenges presented by post-Andijan Central Asian security are immense for both bilateral and multilateral assistance efforts.