On April 16-17 the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Council of Foreign Ministers’ met in Yerevan to discuss international security issues, the potential for cooperation with other multilateral bodies, and the situation in Afghanistan. At the top of its agenda however, was the progress towards establishing the CSTO rapid reaction forces, first announced at the summit in Moscow on February 4. However, the decision by Uzbekistan not to attend the Foreign Ministers’ session in Yerevan further underscored tensions and differences within the CSTO relating to the precise details of the force structure. It also raised speculation that Tashkent might consider future withdrawal from the organization (Interfax, April 15).
Confusion caused by Tashkent’s unexpected decision emanated from the vague statement issued by its Foreign Ministry on April 15, stating that it was "inexpedient" for its delegation to participate. Indeed, initial reporting within Moscow indicated that the issue was being downplayed saying only that a disagreement over a number of "procedural" issues had resulted in Uzbekistan’s last-minute cancellation (Interfax, April 15).
Tashkent viewed the Council of Foreign Ministers’ session as "inexpedient" since it preferred holding the event closer to the full CSTO summit on June 14, while other members pressed hard for an earlier meeting in Armenia. Although it appeared to be only a question of timing, Tashkent wanted to avoid premature discussions at this level, relating to proposals from the Council of Defense Ministers and the Committee of Secretaries of the Security Council’s on enhancing military cooperation and examining the interim results of forming the CSTO rapid reaction forces (Asia Plus, April 16). The procedural objections in reality mask much more fundamental reservations within Tashkent about the future force structure and the terms of its use.
However, within Russia some experts gave credence to rumors that Uzbekistan might be preparing to withdraw from the CSTO, by placing Tashkent’s decision in the context of a recent pattern of non-attendance. Withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Community in the fall of 2008, followed by suspension of its participation in some SCO projects, was placed alongside more recent examples including the refusal of Uzbek officials to attend an SCO conference on Afghanistan, and an international conference also examining Afghanistan held in the Hague -both in March. In this sense, it was alleged that the "hostile" Uzbek policy towards the CSTO demonstrated its renewed "pro-Western" orientation (Regnum, April 15).
On April 16 CSTO Secretary-General Nikolay Bordyuzha, dismissed suggestions that Uzbekistan might be contemplating withdrawal from the organisation. "There is no reason to say that Uzbekistan is going to withdraw from the CSTO. There are no prerequisites for this," Bordyuzha clarified. He explained that such rumors were frequent and that Tashkent had given assurances at the highest levels concerning continued commitment to the CSTO (ITAR-TASS, April 16).
Clearly the CSTO secretariat was anxious to preserve a veneer of unity, suggesting that the disagreement with Uzbekistan was not serious enough to justify concern about its status. The whole episode had resulted from a technical dispute, rather than anything more substantive and reflected a lack of transparency in the official statements from Tashkent. Yet, the country had been sufficiently uneasy about the new force structure in February to warrant opt-out clauses on the extent of its participation and differences emerged on the issue of the size of contribution by each member state. In essence, Tashkent advocated a more equal distribution of forces, especially among the larger members (Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), which has not materialized. Moscow promises to contribute a division and a brigade, while Kazakhstan will earmark a brigade from its air mobile forces. Unlike other CSTO members, Uzbekistan will not become involved in operations necessitating the use of forces from its Emergency or Interior ministries.
Preceding the Council of Foreign Ministers’ session the first meeting of the Interior Ministers and the heads of police agencies of the CSTO was held in Yerevan. The Chief of Armenia’s Police, Colonel-General Alik Sargsyan, told journalists, "Armenia, which currently presides over the CSTO, is glad that another opportunity has arisen to discuss topical issues of fighting crime." Sargsyan said that the participants in the session discussed two key issues -establishing the rapid reaction forces and the cooperation of the various domestic law-enforcement agencies. They agreed to enhance such cooperation to include joint operations against criminal networks aimed at countering national and collective security threats.
The session was attended by delegations from Armenia, Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Bordyuzha and the Armenian Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepyan, and the heads of Armenia’s National Security Service Gorik Hakobyan, and National Security Council Secretary Artur Baghdasaryan. No delegation participated from either Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan (Arminfo, April 15).
Russia’s Interior Ministry’s special-purpose units will become part of the rapid reaction forces, according to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev. "We fully support this decision and I am convinced that the implementation of this project will promote the further development of the organization and the growth of its authority in the security area on a Eurasian scale," Nurgaliyev said. He revealed that Russia will include 100 officers from the special purpose police unit "Zubr" and an additional 50 drawn from the "Rys" unit. These are anti-riot police units, which indicates that the operational planning for the new CSTO forces might extend into situations such as subduing political demonstrations and other peaceful protests (ITAR-TASS, April 15).
Differences in emphasis, composition, shape and size or operational command and control of the rapid reaction forces evidently exist within a currently disunited CSTO. These must be resolved before the CSTO summit in June, but there are already signs that afterwards Uzbekistan might be the most reluctant member of the new structure. Meanwhile, Moscow will likely dismiss any suggestion of fissures within the organization as merely "technical" squabbles.