Moscow has recently reacted with caution and patience following the announced suspension of Uzbekistan’s membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), while leading Russian military officials and experts continue to emphasize that the General Staff regard the risk of military conflict in Central Asia to be growing. In fact, Moscow closely coordinated the resolution to the impasse with Tashkent in the CSTO through its strong defense relations with Minsk, in order to convey a message to Uzbekistan that it either had to cooperate more closely within the body or find a way to leave (RIA Novosti, July 5).
Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Ground Forces, told the Russian Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security on June 26 that “local armed conflicts involving Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan could break out in connection with the projected exacerbation of interstate clashes over the use of energy, water and land resources in the countries of Central Asia.” Although his comments aroused an angry response in some Central Asian capitals, it underscores the sense of urgency in Moscow to reach fuller consensus among CSTO members about how to respond to any regional crisis in the future. Aleksandr Konovalov, the President of the Institute of Strategic Assessments and Analysis, expressed similar concerns linked to Uzbekistan’s position in the CSTO: “Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have not been particularly cordial for a long time. Disputes over water usually are the bone of contention in this case. Tajikistan is a mountainous country, so if it builds dams, there will not be enough water for Uzbekistan, and this is already the case to some extent. Fresh water is the very resource that could give rise to conflicts in this region, so I would agree with the ground forces commander. This is potentially one of the most explosive territories on the planet” (Svobodnaya Pressa, July 10).
Pressure on Tashkent had been building gradually since December 2011, after Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka publicly suggested that Uzbekistan should accept changes in the CSTO or simply leave it. Sources close to the Kremlin told Jamestown that the statement by Lukashenka was requested by the Kremlin, in order to step up the pressure on Tashkent by making it more isolated. Uzbekistan’s suspension of CSTO membership is regarded by Russia as a positive step to streamline the organization. According to Moscow, it will facilitate achieving agreement based on a majority vote among members to take action in response to any future security crisis; with Tashkent playing an active role in the body this would have been much more difficult to achieve. Moscow simply had to stop Tashkent from holding the CSTO for ransom (Interfax, July 2).
Indeed, this interpretation was also supported in numerous statements by senior Russian officials following Tashkent’s decision to suspend its CSTO membership. The general tone from Moscow is not condemnatory, but leaves open the option of Uzbekistan returning to the fold in the future and stresses that the organization needs to reach a common position on its development. On July 5, Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov stated that Uzbekistan’s suspension of membership would neither weaken the CSTO nor impact negatively on Central Asian security (RIA Novosti, July 5).
Serdyukov explained “Of course, this will not affect us, although it would be better if Uzbekistan was part of the CSTO,” adding that Tashkent had simply advanced far too many conditions prior to signing CSTO documents. Consequently, members of the CSTO came to understand that Uzbekistan essentially played the role of a spoiler of its development; the pressure was on Tashkent to become a team player or leave. Serdyukov commented “Yes, they have suspended their membership. So what? You know that this is not their first attempt [to withdraw from the CSTO] and probably not the last,” adding that it is “better if an ally is also a good neighbor” (RIA Novosti, July 5).
However, there were additional indicators of the sense of theater involved in the Uzbekistani saga, particularly as Serdyukov’s remarks were made in Kaliningrad during a meeting of the CIS defense ministry delegations, attended by Uzbekistan. Equally, Tashkent has not taken steps to leave the CIS air defense system, which remains an ongoing project facing multiple challenges. In short, the bilateral level defense and security relationship between Moscow and Tashkent remains strong, while Russian officials expected that the differences within the CSTO would result in some type of “stance” by Uzbekistan. When that “stance” was finally declared, it offered little that clearly demonstrated a complete policy shift on the part of Tashkent (Interfax, June 28).
Indeed, the clues to the ambivalent position of Uzbekistan are clear when linked to legal issues. Since the formation of the Rapid Reaction Forces and the transformation of the CSTO – allowing the body to act in a much wider range of crises and removing the need for full consensus prior to initiating operations – all the objections raised by Tashkent were rooted in the Collective Security Treaty (CST) Charter. The CST charter prohibits major decisions being taken unless consensus is reached among all members; on this basis Tashkent argues that changes in the organization and amendments to the charter agreed by other members are entirely illegal. Nonetheless, applying this strictly legal mechanism to measure the CSTO transformation leaves Uzbekistan in precisely the same predicament: the CST charter does not allow any member to “suspend” its membership, which Uzbekistan has officially done. Moreover, for a member of the CSTO to “withdraw,” it must provide six months advanced notification and specify its reasons. Only after achieving the consent of all members can the decision be accepted at the CSTO level (Interfax, July 2).
All sides benefit from Tashkent’s decision to suspend its CSTO membership. It allows Uzbekistan more flexibility in its defense and security policy as the country prepares for the possible impact on regional security stemming from post-2014 Afghanistan. Other CSTO members are now free to press ahead with transforming the organization, without having to answer to objections from Tashkent. Russia and Belarus have coordinated their approaches on the problems raised by Tashkent since the plan to create new rapid reaction forces was first discussed in Borovoye in December 2008. Consequently, Moscow and Minsk were able to shepherd the CSTO through a potentially damaging crisis and also avoid the impossible outcome of Uzbekistan continuing to impede progress within the organization (Interfax, June 28).