By RFE RL
Uzbekistan on June 28 announced that it has suspended its membership of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), saying the organization ignores Uzbekistan and does not consider its views. The CSTO is largely billed as an antiterrorism organization and it includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke with Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, about the CSTO and the significance of Tashkent’s decision.
RFE/RL: Could you tell us please a little about the CSTO and Uzbekistan’s troubled relations with it?
Vladimir Socor: Uzbekistan quit the CSTO for the first time in 1999. It then returned some years later, but Uzbekistan was never an active participant in the activities of the CSTO. This organization is purely symbolic. It does not have any significant activities in the field, except antiterrorism exercises on a small scale.
The CSTO is mainly a symbol of Russia’s aspiration to become a great power and to be regarded as the leader of a bloc. Russia has its own bilateral relationships with each member country of the CSTO. The CSTO is actually a network of bilateral relationships. It follows the model of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact, which was similarly the sum total of bilateral relationships between Moscow and each individual member country. Conversely, individual member countries do not have bilateral relations [in the area of collective security among] themselves. Only Moscow has that privilege. It sits at the center of this system like the center of a wheel around which the spokes are arranged.
RFE/RL: What advantages do other CSTO members get out of such an arrangement?
Socor: The CSTO offers weapons and other types of military equipment to member countries at the prices of Russian manufacturing. In other words, there are no commercial prices for deliveries of military equipment. The delivery prices are the production prices in Russia without a profit for the Russians. This is something that is supposed to be attractive to CSTO member countries.
However, such arms deliveries are limited to small, selected units from the armed forces of each member country. Each country earmarks some of its units, a few of its units, for participation in CSTO activities — which are annual antiterrorism exercises. It is those units that are being armed by the Russians with weapons at Russian internal production prices. I think one exception to this would be Armenia, to which Russia delivers arms and military equipment for the entire armed forces, not just for selected units.
Those selected units from each country are home-based, and they meet once a year with units from other CSTO-member armed forces for those exercises. Those exercises are conducted under an antiterrorism label but this is a misnomer because these are conventional-force exercises. They are in no sense exercises of rapid-deployment forces or of units specializing in antiterrorism warfare. They are conventional-force units conducted since the last decade or so under the label of antiterrorism.
RFE/RL: How does the CSTO fit into the general structure of security in the region?
Socor: Russia and the CSTO countries are seeking recognition of the CSTO as an international organization by NATO, in the first place, by the United States, and by other major Western actors. No one in the West has given recognition in any form to the CSTO. The CSTO is not recognized as a legitimate international organization. In fact, its own member countries would like to continue having their own relationships with NATO, with the United States, and other Western players — not to have to go through the CSTO in order to have such relationships. And certainly NATO reciprocates that wish.
Following the withdrawal of most Western forces from Afghanistan by [the end of] 2014, there is a general expectation that the CSTO will play an enhanced role in Central Asia. Indeed, if past experience from before 2001 is any guide, the Russians will whip up the perception of threats emanating from Afghanistan to Central Asia in order to close the ranks of CSTO member countries around Russia. They will certainly play up the perception of threats from Afghanistan and will try to create some more tightly organized structure within the CSTO countries around Russia. In this sense, Uzbekistan’s move to quit the CSTO might be a precautionary move, anticipating such moves on Moscow’s part. It probably wants to be out of the danger zone and not to be subjected to pressures that would limit Uzbekistan’s sovereignty.
RFE/RL: You mention the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Is it significant that Uzbekistan is suspending its CSTO membership just as Central Asian countries are negotiating with Washington and NATO about providing exit corridors?
Socor: Those negotiations are confidential. I’m not aware of the specific content of those negotiations. What I do know is that Uzbekistan would like for the United States or NATO forces to leave some of their equipment in Uzbekistan as those forces make their way back to Europe. This is an unresolved issue thus far. At this point, the United States has taken the position that it would leave some nonlethal equipment in Uzbekistan — things like communications equipment, night-vision goggles, and other pieces of advanced, but nonlethal American equipment for the armed forces of Uzbekistan. But this, of course, is not the real thing. Uzbekistan would like equipment for its armed forces — and I believe this is the position of the other Central Asian countries as well. And this is still unresolved.
Of course, the position differs from country to country. Uzbekistan has the strongest armed forces in Central Asia — by far the strongest armed forces in Central Asia. Yet these forces do not participate in CSTO collective exercises, which, as I mentioned, have a symbolic meaning — mainly a spectacle arranged by the Russians for themselves. And so the issue of leaving some American military equipment in Central Asian countries on the way out is still an unresolved issue.
RFE/RL: In general, is Uzbekistan’s decision a blow to Russia and to the CSTO?
Socor: Certainly it is a blow to Russian prestige in Central Asia. It is a blow, however, that the Russians will easily absorb. They have absorbed such blows — from Uzbekistan and from others — in the past, many of them. So the Russians have thick skin — they will take it.
(RFE/RL) — But Uzbekistan’s move shows the CSTO is not a real organization. It undermines Moscow’s efforts to obtain Western recognition of the CSTO. And it demonstrates to other Central Asian countries that the CSTO is really [an unnecessary] organization.
The Uzbek leadership is highly vigilant about terrorism. One can never criticize the Uzbek leadership for under-vigilance on that account. If anything, they tend to be, perhaps, overvigilant and to interpret a lot of events in the region as presenting a threat of terrorism. So this means that for such a vigilant leadership, the CSTO is irrelevant and does not add any value to their antiterrorism efforts.