The Competition for Security Roles in Central Asia
No. 1 2008 January/March
Ivan А. Safranchuk

PhD in Political Science
MGIMO State University of International Relations, Moscow, Russia
Institute for International Studies
Leading Research Fellow;
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Department of International Relations
Associate Professor;
Member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Russia


SPIN RSCI: 9754-1094
ORCID: 0000-0003-2214-6628
ResearcherID: O-3257-2017
Scopus AuthorID: 57193867458


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: Office 4101, 76 Vernadsky Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia

Russia has
clearly demonstrated to its partners and competitors over the past
few years that it considers the space of the former Soviet Union as
part of its zone of interests. Moscow kept speaking about the
Commonwealth of Independent States in the 1990s as a foreign policy
priority as well, but it did little in practice to enforce those
statements. That is why Putin’s publicized ambitions to intensify
Russian policy in the CIS did not draw much attention at the
beginning. However, the past six years have shown that Russia is
prepared to take real steps toward protecting its interests in the
post-Soviet space, above all in Central Asia. This policy has
become necessary because of Russia’s security problems and economic
considerations. An intensification of CIS policy also reflects a
fundamental change in Russia’s overall stance on foreign


The current
situation can be characterized as the coexistence and competition
of two essentially different approaches to foreign policy, which
may be conventionally called ‘the Primakov doctrine’ and the
‘liberal empire concept.’

The Primakov
doctrine proceeded from the assumption that the Soviet Union played
an active role in forming international law and was, to a
significant extent, a beneficiary of that law. That is why Russia,
as the country that inherited all of the Soviet Union’s positions
in this sphere, stands to benefit from international law,
especially if one considers Russia’s present weakness and that it
is not prepared for “brawling outside the legal format.” The
doctrine implies that Russia does not feel capable enough of
defending its national interests openly and, quite possibly, is
even unable to formulate them clearly. That is why Moscow should
wait for better times under the shield of international

This approach was
never laid out in writing, nor was it ever precisely verbalized.
But it was exactly this logic that showed through Russia’s foreign
policy in the second half of the 1990s when Primakov was foreign
minister and later prime minister. Strenuous diplomatic efforts
were also made then to keep the U.S. and NATO within the format of

The ‘liberal
empire concept’ was aired in 2003 by Anatoly Chubais, CEO of
Russian energy monopoly Unified Energy System. In a nutshell, it
suggests that Russia simply has no other choice than to expand its
economic and political influence in the post-Soviet space. At the
same time, it should not act as a tyrant or hegemon but, on the
contrary, it should serve as a source of progress and a guarantor
of human rights. Such a policy embodies Russia’s national mission
through which it should realize its national interests.

There is an
entire spectrum of diverse outlooks and opinions in between these
two positions.

The Primakov
doctrine can be seen much more in declarative politics today, while
the liberal empire concept is present in practical politics. As a
result, one might get the impression that Moscow lacks consistency.
This is evidenced in the growing flow of accusations with “double
standards” – a phrase that Moscow itself used quite often as a
diplomatic tool in the 1990s.

Russia still
lacks the resolve to drop the image of a “peace-loving” country and
to switch from general discussions about international law to open
protection of its interests. This could be partly explained by the
poor ability of the Russian bureaucratic machine to formulate clear

One way or
another, the idea that came into existence under the “liberal
empire” motto is winning over an increasing number of politicians
(especially as more and more people forget about its controversial
author and as greater emphasis is put on the second element of the
notion). At the same time, the Primakov doctrine is gradually
losing ground in spite of support by many professional


Russia has
initiated four projects: the Commonwealth of Independent States
(CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the
Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), and the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (SCO). Three of them tackle security problems. Moscow
hoped to gain efficacious mechanisms of coordination and
cooperation in implementing collective decisions as these
organizations were being set up. Russia needs instruments to
implement its policy, and these four institutions provide levers of
impact over various functional and geographic areas. Their stated
goals may sometimes overlap as they were created at different
periods of time and in different political situations, but
generally these organizations pursue different objectives. Russia
tries to sort out their zones of responsibility, but is still
unable to do so completely. For instance, virtually all of them
except EurAsEC have the same governing bodies (see Table

Source: Table
compiled by the author

Commonwealth of Independent States
does not have any
distinct formulated goals, and many experts have for a long time
started describing it as a kind of divorce following the breakup of
the Soviet Union. However, another definition seems to be more
exact – “the club of First Secretaries;” that is, a club made up of
territorial leaders of the Soviet Communist Party, who took the
reins of power either when the former Soviet republics were gaining
their independence or soon after the short-lived rule of local
popular fronts.

The main problem
of the CIS lies in its inability to transform itself into something
greater. As “the First Secretaries” gradually leave the political
arena, their successors are losing interest in the organization and
are beginning to distance themselves from it. This tendency applies
equally to the explicitly pro-Western presidents – Ukraine’s Victor
Yushchenko and Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili, and to such leaders
as Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Furthermore, it also applies to Belarusian leader Alexander
Lukashenko, who could have become a perfect “First Secretary,” but
still he had never been one.

The CIS’s limited
spectrum of functions was one of the reasons for setting up the
CSTO and EurAsEC. The Commonwealth had turned into a safe haven for
countries not ready yet to join the CSTO and/or EurAsEC and
undersign certain obligations or simply reluctant to do so at

The CIS has kept
three projects pertaining to security in the Central Asian region –
peacekeeping, the unified Air Defense System, and the Antiterrorist
Center. However, parallel agencies have appeared in other formats
as well. The CSTO has set up a united Air Defense System and
considered a peacekeeping agency of its own, while the SCO has
established a regional antiterrorist structure.

Security projects
(the Antiterrorist Center, the common Air Defense and peacekeeping)
under CIS auspices will not be shut down, but there will not likely
be either a broadening or intensification of CIS operations in the
security field.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization
grew out of successful
cooperation among five countries in delimitating the state borders
between them. A Shanghai Quintet was formed in 1996, and the
countries transformed the organization into the SCO in 2001 and
included Uzbekistan. Security issues were given priority when the
participating countries formulated the SCO’s goals, but soon after
that the scope of their interests broadened – under some influence
from China.

Now the SCO
positions itself as a Euro-Asiatic organization of a universal
type. Its inter-departmental councils are mushrooming and their
activity embraces an ever-greater scope of problems, as they de
facto replicate CIS agencies with a similar status. The SCO’s
economic component will be growing at ever-increasing rates, but
security issues will naturally remain on its agenda as well. The
forum has shown its readiness to assume responsibility for security
in Central Asia and for the region’s general

The SCO has its
own position toward the U.S. Many in the West view this
organization as an “anti-American union,” but the veracity of this
assessment can be doubted merely due to the fact that India and
Pakistan – the two countries that are not adversaries of the U.S.
in any way – have an observer status in the SCO.

And yet the talk
about the SCO’s anti-American stance did not spring out of nothing.
The organization openly pursues the goal of doing without the U.S.
in resolving all challenges facing Central Asia. While it does not
seek to oppose Washington either globally or regionally, the SCO
does not want any links with Washington either. This means it wants
to get along without the U.S., but not go against it. The SCO is
rather interesting as a model of relationship with a superpower.
There are other institutions in addition to the SCO that stand
outside the American context, but these are institutions with which
the U.S. itself is not really interested in contacts or
cooperation. The situation is different with America’s interest
toward the SCO, yet the “Shanghaians” show reluctance for such
contacts. At the same time, a dialog between the SCO and the
European Union seems quite possible.

Collective Security Treaty Organization
. Vladimir Putin’s
administration came up with an initiative at CIS summits in Minsk
and Bishkek in 2000 to fortify the Collective Security Treaty. The
initiative followed armed clashes in Kyrgyz mountainous regions in
the summers of 1999 and 2000. It was the first time that the
signatories of the treaty needed to pool their efforts for joint
military operations. This experience and its analysis paved the way
for attempts to breathe new life into the treaty, and these efforts
led to the creation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization
in 2002 and 2003 (the documents were signed in 2002 and took legal
effect in 2003).

It is important
that the organization was not set up from scratch and this factor
influenced its structure and functioning. The CSTO combined
disconnected elements that came into existence between 1992 and
2001 under different conditions and for various purposes. It was a
real uphill battle to bring all the elements together. Graph 1
shows the organization’s structure, with indications of the years
when its elements were created. The initial goal of the CSTO was to
coordinate the activity of a number of regional units that were
already in existence by 2002, including the East European Allied
Forces (Russia and Belarus), the Caucasus Allied Forces
(Russia-Armenia), and the Collective Rapid Deployment Force for
Central Asia. Their convergence was legally formalized in the
Protocol on the Formation and Functioning of the Forces and
Facilities of the Collective Security System of Collective Security
Treaty Signatory Countries. It was signed in Yerevan in

In terms of
chronology, Russian-Armenian structures were the first ones to
appear and their initial objectives were to patrol the
Armenian-Turkish state border. The formation of the
Russian-Belarusian Allied Forces helped promote military
cooperation that began after the start of NATO’s eastward expansion
in 1997 and gained momentum after the alliance’s attacks on
Yugoslavia. The emergence of the forces was part of a plan for
building the Union State of Russia and Belarus, and thus it
depended heavily on political relations between Moscow and
In both cases the allied forces had to contain the external threat
and their establishment was part of the process of providing mutual
military aid. The sides preferred using the legal multilateral
format of the Collective Security Treaty and fitting bilateral
relations into it rather than signing a new agreement. The latter
fact made it possible to bring all these elements together under
the umbrella of a single organization.

The actions of
the allies were initially coordinated through the Council of
Defense Ministers and the Committee of Secretaries of (National)
Security Councils, both set up in 2000 when the Collective Rapid
Deployment Force for Central Asia did not exist yet. Later, these
structures were integrated into the revamped Collective Security
Treaty Organization.

Given the CSTO’s
eclectic nature, the political and legal interaction of all of its
elements requires much effort, which in turn makes it necessary to
have efficient procedures in place for endorsing and implementing

The CSTO was
perceived at first as an organization built on the Russian military
platform (personnel training, provision of Russian weaponry and
defense technologies, and joint exercises) – or, in other words, as
a military organization. However, it was quickly decided to
transform it into a universal security institution. The CSTO views
its zone of responsibility today as one that embraces both
traditional and new threats (for instance, it organizes the annual
operation Kanal [Channel] to curb drug trafficking).


The zones of
responsibility of the SCO and CSTO overlap considerably from the
functional and geographic points of view. Five of the CSTO’s seven
member-states are also members of the SCO. Five of the six
member-states of the SCO are simultaneously members of the CSTO.
However, this overlapping does not make relations between the two
entities any easier. It would be much more correct to speak of
covert and dangerous competition that the two organizations are
getting drawn into.

The CSTO stands
to lose more from this competition since it is more likely that the
SCO will be able to resolve more issues of security with much
greater efficiency, and especially the issues falling into the
group of so-called new threats. This will reduce the CSTO to the
level of running the common Air Defense System, training personnel
and supplying Russian weapons to other member-states. In essence,
it will change into a defense organization with limited

Some of the
countries that are members of both organizations will definitely be
glad to see the CSTO weaken and the SCO gain strength, while others
will be alarmed by an excessive change in the balance in favor of
the “Shanghaians.”

The intricate
relations between the CSTO and the SCO are an open secret, as
contacts have been tense for the past several years between their
secretariats. Some steps were made toward resolving the frictions
in 2007. SCO member-states decided at the organization’s Bishkek
summit conference to coordinate activities between the SCO and the
CSTO. As a result, Secretaries General Nikolai Bordyuzha (CSTO) and
Bolat Nurgaliyev (SCO) signed a joint document in Dushanbe in
October 2007. It does not say anything about “coordination” though,
and is titled Memorandum of Understanding Between the Secretariat
of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Secretariat
of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This title amply reflects
the main positions and intentions of the two groups of

The Memorandum
featured an agreement among the parties to exercise cooperation
between their secretariats, invite each other’s representatives to
various events, design joint programs and organize joint events.
These forms of cooperation embrace virtually all spheres of
activity. However, it is an open question how cooperative ties
between the two secretariats will develop in the future and what
they will bring about in practical terms. Two scenarios are
possible here.

First, the CSTO and the SCO may view the
Memorandum as an agreement on peaceful coexistence and
non-interference in each other’s affairs. In this case, they will
have to somehow mark off the functional zones of responsibility,
which is a difficult thing to do, as neither organization will drop
parallel security projects. However, the Memorandum makes a
reservation for this parallelism.

Under the
second – and most plausible – scenario, the CSTO
and the SCO will keep their parallel projects, but will coordinate
their plans to avoid open conflict. In essence, this will give
China access to how the CSTO drafts its plans and makes decisions.
However, one of the main specific features of the CSTO is that its
operations do not encompass China, and if Beijing gets access there
(and this access will expand as long as cooperation increases up to
joint programs and events), will there be any sense in the
existence of two identical institutions? This does not mean that
the CSTO will formally disappear, but it will run the risk of
repeating the plight of the Western European Union – a defense
organization that lost practical sense after the formation of

Some of the
countries that are members of both organizations are interested in
competition between them. While some would like to balance off
Russia’s influence in the CSTO by their own participation in the
SCO, others are seeking to neutralize China’s influence in the SCO
through participation in the CSTO. However, both organizations
clearly do not want open competition, but this competition can only
be avoided at the expense of one of the organizations. Right now it
looks like the CSTO will be making step by step concessions to the
“Shanghaians.” Decisions on cooperation will not get rid of the
concerns of the CSTO Secretariat. Moreover, they might even play
against it, as they will provide the Chinese with instrumental
access to the organization.

However, much
will depend on the amount of influence that China has over the SCO.
One often comes across a widespread opinion in the media and among
Western experts that the SCO is a “Chinese organization,” but this
is not the case. Beijing has veto power in the SCO at the moment
implying that no decision can be made that runs counter to its
interests. Yet the Chinese do not have freedom of action, and thus
the organization cannot deal with all the tiny wishes that it might
get. The role of the SCO Secretariat will continue to grow (for
instance, its Secretary General got the status of an executive in
2007) and it may eventually begin to take more and more
unaffiliated positions. That is why much will depend on the
Secretary General. A Kazakh official will occupy the post for
another two years and then it will go to a Kyrgyz, a Tajik, and a
Russian, each to hold this post for three years. The secretariat
might prefer not to aggravate relations with the CSTO, and peaceful
coexistence, as well as equal cooperation, would be quite possible
by then.