Tashkent Goes, Problems Stay
No. 3 2012 July/September
Arkady Dubnov

Political analyst at Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper.

Will the CSTO Overcome the Conceptual Crisis?

Uzbekistan’s decision to suspend its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization has sparked another round of debates about the CSTO’s efficiency. But even without Tashkent’s decision, there has long been the need to consider how things stand in the former Soviet Union twenty years after the breakup of the once-unified state. In addition to a heaping pile of geopolitical problems, there is a major factor of personal relationships among the leaders of the countries that have emerged in place of the USSR.


During a photo session at a jubilee summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2011 in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov swapped places with Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva so as not to be near his Tajikistan counterpart Emomali Rahmon. Karimov skipped a CIS summit, held in September 2011 in the Tajik capital Dushanbe to mark the 20th anniversary of the Commonwealth, as well as an informal CSTO summit in Astana a month before. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who chaired the CSTO then, felt insulted even more than Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev who hosted the meeting. Lukashenko lashed out against Tashkent and proposed expelling “countries that do not wish to fully cooperate within the Treaty framework.” The latest clash took place in December at an official CSTO summit in Moscow, when Lukashenko and Nazarbayev chided Karimov that he had fallen out with almost all his partners. Karimov’s response was very emotional.

It seemed that Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin offered a possibility for Karimov to restore a trusting relationship at least with Russia, lost to a certain extent over the years of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. At least, this was suggested by a flow of praise for Putin from the Uzbek leader at their meeting in Moscow a week after the Russian leader’s inauguration: “Putin is a man I’d follow into combat blindfolded.” Karimov also recalled that in 2008 he had urged Putin to run for a third term, despite constitutional limitations. Karimov put his signature under a joint declaration dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Collective Security Treaty and the 10th anniversary of the Organization. In this document, the presidents reiterated their “commitment to the goals and principles of the Collective Security Treaty and readiness to further develop and deepen allied relations” in various fields.

Two weeks later, however, a SCO summit in Beijing again highlighted serious disagreements between Uzbekistan and its CSTO partners from among SCO members –Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. This time, the reason was the summit’s decision to grant Afghanistan observer status at the SCO. Over the recent years, Tashkent has held a special position, insisting on a priority of bilateral relations with Kabul and seeking to avoid its being drawn into the SCO’s orbit. Perhaps, the Uzbek leadership, which has never had warm feelings for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, does not want the strengthening of his positions through Kabul’s closer ties with Moscow and, especially, Beijing. Karimov did not dare veto the decision, but he shared his “displeasure,” to put it mildly, with some of his colleagues. A week later, Tashkent notified the CSTO Secretariat of the suspension of its membership. Another couple of weeks later, the decision was announced publicly.

Some senior officials in Moscow interpreted the move as a slap in the face – the ink was not even dry on Karimov’s signature on the Moscow Declaration, in which he reiterated his allegiance to the allied relations. Russian diplomats preferred to keep silent, saying only that “we are studying the situation, as there are no provisions in the CSTO regulations providing for a unilateral suspension of CSTO membership.” Kazakh Defense Minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov said that Uzbekistan’s request would be considered at a session of the Collective Security Council in December 2012 in Moscow in keeping with Regulations on Procedures for Suspending the Participation of a CSTO Member in the Activities of CSTO Bodies or Expelling It from the Organization. A decision should be taken by consensus.

Analysts have begun to talk about an inevitable breakup of the CSTO after Uzbekistan’s withdrawal. This will hardly happen in the near future, like the Commonwealth of Independent States has not collapsed, despite repeated mantras heard from its members. After all, both organizations are rather image-building than actually functioning, and for some time they will keep serving – each in its own way – as demonstrations of Moscow’s attempts to keep the post-Soviet space within the framework of some historical, mental and economic community.

As a Russian official in charge of cooperation with former Soviet republics said recently with regard to the CSTO, “There is no alternative to consolidation of the CIS states around Russia.” Those countries that do not want to have anything to do with Moscow will break their institutional ties with the CIS and Russia as resolutely as Georgia has done. But Tbilisi has thus shown that there is a possibility of a basically different format of relations between the former Soviet periphery and Russia as, despite their radical political differences, Georgia’s economic life still largely depends on its northern neighbor.

The Georgian path is hardly acceptable to Uzbekistan because it may bring about serious complications for the latter. Suffice it to recall several million Uzbek migrant workers in Russia who send home not less than U.S. $4 billion a year ($4.9 billion in 2011). When a Russian pilot was arrested in Tajikistan last year and his plane confiscated, Moscow only needed to hint that it might start deporting Tajik migrant workers from Russia, and Dushanbe immediately backed down.


Vladimir Putin tried to dampen the scandalous effect of Tashkent’s demarche. Speaking in early August before an Ulyanovsk-based airborne brigade, which is part of the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force, he described the CSTO as “an important organization.” It “is a certain guarantor of our interaction with partners and allies, first of all, of course, in the so-called post-Soviet space, whose mechanism can be used effectively and quickly in case of threats, above all, external ones,” he said. The meticulousness of Putin’s wording (“certain guarantor”) is eloquent. Interaction in the CSTO can be found only in numerous military exercises in which Russian troops take part. However, it is hard to remember when Uzbek troops took part in such exercises, let alone when they acted shoulder to shoulder with Tajik troops.

Openly hostile relations between formal allies Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have long become proverbial and the butt of bitter jokes on both sides of the Uzbek-Tajik border. There is no greater discredit to the CSTO today than tens of kilometers of minefields laid along this border. Dushanbe has recently mentioned for the first time a “disservice” of its “good neighbor” through whose “fault” Tajikistan was the only Soviet republic that failed to nationalize its military-technical facilities after the Soviet Union’s breakup. An article published on the website of the Tajik Embassy in Moscow says that in the early 1990s this factor added confidence to radical Islamists who dared to start a civil war in Tajikistan. Yet, the hardest clinch, from which Tashkent and Dushanbe have been unable to disengage for years, is the construction of the Rogun hydro power plant in Tajikistan. The Uzbek leadership views it as a threat to its national security, whereas Dushanbe, on the contrary, believes it is Tashkent’s opposition to the project that is the main external threat to Tajikistan’s sovereignty.

The situation is no better on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border where border guards of both countries were killed in a recent armed incident. The catastrophic level of distrust and ethnic hostility, especially bitter between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz after the bloody ethnic clashes in June 2010 in Osh, south Kyrgyzstan, indicates extreme vulnerability of the collective security system in Central Asia or, to put it bluntly, its total absence.

There is no friendly atmosphere on the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, either. In July 2011, Uzbek border guards for almost two weeks kept silent about 12 Kazakh mountaineers, including nine teenagers, detained by them in the Tian Shan mountains. In June 2012, the Uzbek authorities refused a request from Kazakhstan to allow Kazakh troops and hardware to transit Uzbekistan to join the Peace Mission 2012 exercise, held by the SCO. Although Uzbekistan is a SCO member, it refused to participate in it.

This is how Uzbekistan’s cooperation with three CSTO allies looks like. Can one expect reliable and trust-based interaction among security agencies of the four Central Asian CSTO members if external threats arise? The question is rhetorical. One can recall last year’s Tajik invitation to an Iranian army platoon to visit Dushanbe for participation in a military parade to mark the 20th anniversary of Tajikistan’s independence. Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloyev proudly announced then that, if necessary, “Iranian brothers” would come to Tajikistan’s aid in a couple of hours. But suddenly there arose a problem: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan denied the “brothers” permission to enter their airspace. Surprisingly, help came from Americans who helped the Iranian military with permission to fly over Afghanistan. This was, perhaps, the only time the U.S. helped Tehran.

In 2006, the author of this article was present at a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Islam Karimov in Sochi, after which the Uzbek president announced that his country was returning to the CSTO. The move was widely anticipated. In this way, Tashkent thanked Moscow for its support for the suppression of unrest in Andijan in May 2005, which led to an international isolation of the Uzbek leadership. A senior Russian official said bitterly in Sochi that, along with Uzbekistan, “we would drag into the CSTO” the entire baggage of problems existing in its relations with neighbors. And this did happen, although Uzbekistan has never become a full CSTO member. About 15 agreements and protocols concluded within the CSTO framework have not been ratified by Tashkent.

Hardly anyone of the CSTO allies expected to see Tashkent’s willingness for close cooperation in the military-political sphere after it had been forced into the organization. So, when Wikileaks released U.S. diplomatic cables containing Karimov’s revelations about Russia, it was not a bombshell at all. In particular, one of the leaked cables said that Karimov, at a 2009 meeting with U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns, accused Russia of creating the CSTO to serve as the “anti-NATO” and seeking to dominate the former Soviet space. Russia’s biggest problem remained its “imperial ambitions,” the Uzbek leader charged. It is even strange that the Uzbek president decided to get rid of the ambiguity of his position among his CSTO partners only three years later.

According to Article 3 of the CSTO Charter, one of the purposes of the organization is “to ensure the collective defense of the independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the member States.” Perhaps, Tashkent’s move will help give an honest answer to the question whether there are now conditions for collective defense to ensure security in that part of the post-Soviet space that is still ready to see Russia as the main guarantor. And what is security for the CSTO members?



The CSTO Secretary General, Nikolai Bordyuzha, last year invited experts and political scientists for a brainstorming session to generate new ideas with a view to improving the organization’s work. Attempts to find any ideology that would bring together the CSTO member countries – like liberal values of Western democracy that unite the NATO members – ended in embarrassment. The experts found only one such value, namely, stability. However, as the director of the European Security Center of Russia’s Institute of Science Information for Social Sciences, Tatyana Parkhalina, said, the West views this “stability” as conservation of autocratic regimes, to ensure which the CSTO was created. None of the experts questioned the obvious: the main threats to stability come from inside each country, not from outside.

Can the CSTO be of any use in a situation like this, especially as Article 5 of its Charter provides for “non-interference in matters falling within the national jurisdiction of the member States”? This question has been answered twice over the past few years: during the aforementioned events in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, and a brief military operation by Tajik government forces in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, which began on July 24, 2012. The CSTO did not interfere in either case, although such a probability was considered following a request for help from Kyrgyzstan’s interim president Roza Otunbayeva in June 2010. Bordyuzha had to admit that the CSTO had no mechanisms for reacting to ethnic clashes, such as those that took place in south Kyrgyzstan. He delicately said that to develop such mechanisms “a business game has been held, which has revealed very many practical problems.”

In this case, the problems stemmed from the categorical veto imposed by the Uzbek leadership on the CSTO’s interference in the Osh events. Tashkent found unacceptable the appearance near its borders of Russian troops which would have made the bulk of a peacekeeping force. One of the reasons why Uzbekistan refused to sign a protocol on prolongation of its participation in the Collective Security Treaty in 1999 was Moscow’s plans to create a Russian military base in Tajikistan on the basis of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, which had been stationed there since Soviet times. (Now this move is called the first withdrawal by Uzbekistan from the CSTO, although formally it joined this international organization only in 2002.) Karimov shared his complaints about the Russian leadership with your author then, expressing, in particular, his displeasure with large-scale supplies of Russian weapons to Armenia (the Uzbek leader made no secret of his solidarity with Azerbaijan) and his disagreement with Russia’s desire to maintain its military presence in Transnistria.

In view of this, it seemed only logical that Uzbekistan joined GUAM, a regional organization of four post-Soviet states (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova), which sought rapprochement with NATO. Due to the membership of Uzbekistan, the organization was renamed GUUAM. However, Tashkent soon became disillusioned with it and withdrew from it, too. After that, GUAM stopped appearing in the media.

Tashkent’s refusal to allow a Russian-led CSTO force to extinguish the Osh “fire” in 2010 may be an indication of the main and most painful problem that kills trust in military cooperation within the organization. Authoritarian regimes ruling in Central Asian countries are not sure that Moscow, sending its commandos to their aid, will not give them opposite orders at the same time. Anti-Russian phobias are very strong among a large part of the national elites in the region, which makes the fear of alleged Russian conspiracies against them a major factor in the political atmosphere in these countries.

The CSTO did not intervene in the situation in Tajikistan in late July 2012, either, when a 3,000-strong government force attacked an armed opposition group based in Gorno-Badakhshan. “This is purely an internal affair of Tajikistan and does not require interference from the Collective Forces,” Bordyuzha said. “Tajik security forces are capable of solving Gorno-Badakhshan problems on their own.”

Bordyuzha’s words were a reaction to a statement by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko: “Tajikistan is a member of our organization, and we cannot ignore the president’s appeal.” It turned out that they could, especially as there was no appeal from Emomali Rahmon for help. And there could not be, considering the suspicions that Dushanbe has towards its Russian ally. Characteristic in this respect were rumors, which were spread in early August and which cited “well-informed sources,” about a planned assassination attempt on the Tajik president during his planned trip to Gorno-Badakhshan in late August to attend celebrations of the 80th anniversary of the province. The “sources” said that there was “an Uzbek or a Russian trace” in the attempt. As a result, Rahmon preferred a visit to Turkmenistan instead.

It is difficult not to agree with the head of the International Security Center and a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexei Arbatov, who said in a recent interview with Noviye Izvestiya that “the CSTO, as a military alliance, does not exist; rather, there are military relations between Russia and the other CSTO members.” Arbatov emphasized that the organization lacks the main thing that would make it a military alliance – “shared views of external threats and rules dictating when military intervention is possible in cases of domestic or cross-border threats.” According to Arbatov, the CSTO does not resemble a military-political alliance, either, although it claims to be one. The political analyst refers to the absence of political support for Russia’s actions during the 2008 war in the Caucasus from its CSTO allies, none of which has recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to this day.

Moreover, the August 2008 war scared some of the CIS capitals. Their ruling elites saw Moscow’s determination to assert its interests in the post-Soviet space by force. For example, Turkmenistan, which has a neutral status and which is not a member of the CSTO, held an extra military exercise in the Caspian region in the west of the country in the autumn of 2008. There is reason to believe that the exercise was intended to serve as a demonstration of Ashgabat’s readiness to take countermeasures if Moscow uses force against Turkmenistan. Also, there are some economic and humanitarian problems complicating Russian-Turkmen relations, and the attitude of the Russian leadership to them could make Ashgabat nervous.

Suspicion seems to dominate relations among post-Soviet neighbors. The breakup of the Soviet Union is still not over, at least, on a mental level, and the “divorce proceedings,” for which the CIS was established, continue. Moscow is not the only source of suspicion; Moscow suspects others, too. Russia’s expert community and political elite took Tashkent’s withdrawal from the CSTO as a sign that Uzbekistan wanted thus to remove barriers to the return to the country of a U.S. military base, closed in 2005 in response to Washington’s condemnation of a harsh police crackdown on protesters in Andijan. The planned withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan by 2014 and U.S. plans to keep a significant part of military equipment in Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan, first of all in Uzbekistan, gave grounds for such a belief.

Realizing this, President Karimov, known for his political pragmatism (which many of his partners call, at best, double-dealing), decided to make a preemptive move in order to allay these accusations. In early August 2012, he submitted a foreign-policy bill to the Uzbek parliament for approval. After more than 20 years of the country’s independence, the bill, outlining a foreign-policy concept, for the first time gives foreign-policy principles the status of law. Upon reading the concept, one understands why it has become so necessary only now.

The concept provides a theoretical justification for Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO (which Tashkent believes is now final). Karimov has formulated principles of state neutrality which his country intends to abide by. The concept, however, makes no mention of this term – apparently, to be on the safe side. It says that Uzbekistan “is not involved in military-political blocs, reserves the right to withdraw from any interstate organization if it transforms into a military-political bloc, does not allow the deployment of foreign military bases and facilities on its territory, and takes political, economic and other measures to prevent its involvement in armed conflicts and tensions in neighboring states.”

So, there will not be any foreign military bases in Uzbekistan. But, apparently, the law will not be retroactive; otherwise Tashkent would have to do something with the German airbase in Termez, near the border with Afghanistan. The base, however, has earlier been providently given a different, less provocative, status, and there is no reason why the same cannot be done with any other military infrastructure that foreign troops could use. The same trick, which suits almost everyone, has been used since 2009 with regard to the former Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, which in 2009 was renamed “Transit Center at Manas.” Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO saves it the trouble of coordinating all such decisions with its “bitter allies,” such as Tajikistan.

The following provision of the concept is very important from Tashkent’s point of view: “Challenges in Central Asia should be settled by the states in the region themselves without the intervention of external forces. […] No integration should be imposed from the outside. It is unacceptable if it affects the freedom, independence and territorial integrity of the country or is dictated by ideological commitments.”

Each of these points can be easily illustrated by specific situations that have already occurred in the region and that have given grounds for Uzbekistan to express its dissenting opinion in every discussion at summits of the CSTO and the CIS. The points also clearly allude to various initiatives coming from Moscow (“No integration should be imposed from the outside”) and to plans for the participation of Russian troops, including as part of a CSTO force, in regional conflicts (“Challenges in Central Asia should be settled by the states in the region themselves without the intervention of external forces”).

At the same time, the system of views of the Uzbek leader on his country’s place in the world, presented in the concept and approved as law, is a clear message to Moscow: “If we are not with you, it does not mean that we are against you.” Karimov sort of says: “Why should we need this CSTO? Let’s be friends and cooperate directly.”


This situation reveals painful problems in relations among the CSTO member countries and their leaders, considering the obvious fact that all these countries, with few exceptions, are personalist authoritarian regimes. If we exclude the Uzbek president from this top-level communication system, the stability of the entire CSTO structure may probably increase. However, there is a “but” here: in contrast to other Central Asian countries which publicly discuss the advisability of their membership in the CSTO, nothing is known about such discussions in Uzbekistan. It is impossible to predict what position on this issue will prevail after a change of the ruling elites in Tashkent.

On the other hand, Uzbekistan’s withdrawal makes one think of a more general problem – the artificiality of the entire structure of military-political security, built around Russia. In fact, the CSTO is now a mechanical combination of three security systems, each based on Russian participation – the Central Asian, southern and western systems. Russia’s 102nd military base in Armenia is an undisputed guarantor of stability in the South Caucasus. However, soldiers of Christian Armenia will never be assigned to participate in CSTO military operations in Muslim-dominated areas of Central Asia. And conversely, it is hard to imagine, even in one’s wildest fantasies, that Kazakh or Kyrgyz special forces will be sent to help Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to fight against fellow Muslims from Azerbaijan.

Similarly, it is as hard to imagine Belarusian soldiers taking part in operations in the Caucasus or Central Asia, no matter how much the events in those remote regions worry Alexander Lukashenko. The Belarusian president is more concerned for “joint peacekeeping activity in a UN-CSTO format,” proposed by him last year when he chaired the CSTO. In turn, Central Asian and Armenian CSTO allies of Minsk are not concerned much about a breach in the western segment of the CSTO air defense system, namely in the Belarusian sky, through which plush teddy bears infiltrated the collective security territory from a Swedish light plane. From the allies’ point of view, this is a problem of Moscow, which shares one air defense system with Minsk, not of the CSTO.

The finale of Tashkent’s protracted farewell to the CSTO makes the issue of the autonomous operation of each of the three components of the organization even more urgent. This problem is particularly relevant for Central Asia – very little time is left before the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, and it is already time for staff officers of the allied countries to prepare concrete action plans in the event of an escalation of tensions in the region. Uzbek opposition will not stand in their way now, and Tashkent should be given a special thanks for that. But if agreement is not achieved again, Uzbekistan will not be there to blame for that.