Uzbekistan is often cast as a reluctant or difficult member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), because of its consistent opposition to new initiatives in either body and relentless prudence concerning its participation in multilateral military exercises. Yet, the complex policymaking in Tashkent that produces such thorny approaches to security issues is also frequently refracted through the Russian media in such a way as to distort its purposes or deeper considerations. Once again, behind the colorful official claims of success surrounding the latest SCO Peace Mission exercise, Tashkent exposed the disunity in the organization by refusing to participate (Interfax, June 9).
There are two clearly identifiable trends in the Peace Mission anti-terrorist exercises, one is the gradual reduction in size and the other is the persistent refusal by Uzbekistan to participate. Indeed, the only Peace Mission exercise to involve all members (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) occurred in 2007; even then, Uzbekistani involvement was restricted to sending a small number of officers to the command-staff element. Peace Mission 2012, staged in Sugd Region in the northern mountainous area of Tajikistan on June 9-14, proved to be smaller than any of the eight previous Peace Mission exercises since 2003 (Interfax, June 10).
Around 2,000 servicemen and 500 pieces of hardware rehearsed anti-terrorist maneuvers. China and Russia sent roughly equal numbers of personnel to the exercises – around 350 each – while Kazakhstan dispatched a battalion from an air assault brigade, as well as air defense forces. Kyrgyzstan contributed a mountain warfare company and a Special Forces unit, while the host nation included infantry and artillery battalions and personnel from the Emergencies Ministry (Interfax, June 9, 10, 12; Krasnaya Zvezda, June 14).
Ahead of the exercise, however, Tashkent made clear that Uzbekistan’s forces would not participate. No official explanation was offered, although some observers linked the decision to bilateral tensions between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There may be some traction in this interpretation, since there are deep divisions over water issues, a visa regime is in place between both countries and Uzbekistan has mined the border area. However, Tashkent went much further in its non-participation in Peace Mission 2012 by refusing a request from Astana to allow Kazakhstani units to transit Uzbekistan’s territory on their way to join the exercise in northern Tajikistan (Interfax, Regnum, June 12).
Tashkent’s snub to Astana underlined the level of disunity within the SCO over basic issues such as agreeing to military transit through member state territories or over the conceptual approach to the exercise. Following the largest SCO Peace Mission exercise in 2005, involving almost 10,000 troops, Tashkent complained to other SCO members that the exercise did not fit an anti-terrorist model; the inclusion of strategic bombers and submarines in that event demonstrated that the real intention of the exercise was to rehearse repelling a state actor using conventional combined-arms operations. In 2007, Tashkent sent officers to that year’s Peace Mission, as the exercise scenario more closely resembled an anti-terrorist approach, but there was still something that made Uzbekistani security officials uneasy about deepening the level of involvement (“The Rising Dragon: SCO Peace Mission 2007,” The Jamestown Foundation, October 19, 2007).
Unlike earlier Russian media coverage on Uzbekistan’s objections to participating in SCO or CSTO military exercises, which tended to vilify Tashkent, characterizing the regime as unpredictable and erratic, an unattributed report in Nezavisimaya Gazeta correctly identified that Uzbekistan had not fully taken part in any Peace Mission exercise. Doubtless, the author was referring to the absence of Uzbekistani soldiers in Peace Mission 2007 and the non-involvement in all other SCO Peace Mission exercises (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 14).
The article noted Tashkent’s somewhat anomalous stance on counter-terrorist issues. The SCO’s Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS) has its headquarters in Tashkent, while the SCO Council of Heads of State had unanimously adopted the program for combating terrorism, separatism and extremism for 2014-2015. But it seemed unclear as to why Tashkent insisted on avoiding such high-profile military exercises if their theme was genuinely focused upon improving joint anti-terrorist capabilities. Indeed, such nuances keep appearing in Uzbekistani policy. In 2009, Uzbekistan agreed on the SCO procedure for organizing and staging joint counter-terrorism exercises, although its parliament ruled that the country could only take part in these exercises as an observer. The Nezavisimaya Gazeta article noted that President Islam Karimov has also opposed the creation of rapid reaction forces in the CSTO, which would be tasked with an enlarged mandate to act in a number of mission types ranging from a domestic crisis to emergency or disaster relief (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 14). The article could also have added that Tashkent effectively scuppered Moscow’s plans, in 2009, to open a second airbase in Kyrgyzstan, located in Osh, basing its objections on avoiding what was perceived as potential militarization of the Fergana Valley.
Nonetheless, the Nezavisimaya Gazeta piece described Tashkent’s stance on Peace Mission 2012 and its reluctance to become involved in SCO or CSTO military exercises as “understandable.” The author noted that neither organization has taken part in any conflict or peacekeeping operation in the post-Soviet space. And despite the large number of transnational threats facing Central Asia, both the SCO and the CSTO have no practical experience in conducting operations. More importantly, the article highlighted Tashkent’s greatest security concern about the potential for these organizations to act in Central Asia. Uzbekistan fears the risk of internationalizing potential conflicts within the post-Soviet space. For Tashkent then, although it broadly supports the aims and purpose of the SCO and the CSTO, the preferred mechanism to deal with a security crisis in the region is not multilateral (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 14).
Paradoxically, Uzbekistan’s critique of the weaknesses of the military exercises conducted by these organizations highlights two crucial aspects of regional security: after twenty years of independence, the Central Asian states have not formed a regional security architecture for themselves, and any “regional” security cooperation exists only at a virtual level. Analysts and officials in Tashkent understand in this context that if a real security crisis erupts in Central Asia, the response is unlikely to be multilateral.