After ten years of membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Kyrgyzstan still has a long way to go in building relations with the other member countries. Apart from regular meetings by officials and some technical and human resource assistance (the scale of which is incomparable to that provided by NATO countries), there have been only two noteworthy episodes related to the regional security organization.
KYRGYZSTAN AND RUSSIA
The first episode concerns the airbase in Kant, located 20 kilometers outside of Bishkek, which was created in 2003 as a direct response to an anti-terrorism coalition base set up in Manas. While the idea behind the base’s establishment was quite concrete – to provide support for the redeployment of troops and in-flight refueling of aircraft operating in Afghanistan – the Russian base was created to offer air support for the CSTO’s force in Central Asia. However, not enough Russian planes landed at Kant to be treated as a regional air force. Kant was clearly a Russian airbase built in response to the anti-terrorism coalition’s base. The Russian military had withdrawn its forces from Kyrgyzstan long before then, and there were only a couple of Russian defense infrastructure facilities left in the country. Manas provided an excellent opportunity for the Russians to return.
Former Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev’s national security concept called for multi-vector “umbrella” security and provided for the presence of several bases assigned to different military blocs in Kyrgyzstan. In fact, not only was Kyrgyzstan a member of the CSTO, but, like most post-Soviet countries, it also actively cooperated with NATO under the Partnership for Peace program. There were many advocates for closer ties with NATO and even NATO membership; Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov, who was his country’s ambassador to the Benelux countries at the time, ardently supported this position. The reason was not so much assistance from the United States and European countries in strengthening the country’s defense capabilities, as the almost total neglect of the country by Moscow in the first post-Soviet decade. At the time, integration with the West was a dominant theme. Thus Bishkek’s decision to deploy a Russian base (or an air base for the CSTO’s force in Central Asia) in Kant was prompted by its multi-vector approach rather than by an actual commitment to play a greater role in the organization.
If you ask people about the Kant base today, only a few will remember the CSTO. Incidentally, the latest agreement no longer refers to it as an element of the alliance and clearly mentions it as a Russian facility within the unified Russian base. Everything has fallen into the right place and the CSTO had nothing to do with this.
The other situation is even more noteworthy. Throughout its membership in the organization, Bishkek has requested assistance only once – in June 2010 when hundreds of people were dying every day in an ethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan. In response to an appeal from Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the interim government, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who was attending a SCO summit in Tashkent 300 kilometers from the violence, said that the question of CSTO interference could not be considered, because such a response was not provided for either in the organization’s charter or in agreements.
Current CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha says that the organization played an active role in ending the conflict, planned measures, and took relevant steps. However, Kyrgyz officials clearly remember how much time it took to draw up a list of procedures that the CSTO could take to help and how slowly that help arrived. Outside assistance came in the form of riot control equipment only after Bishkek had independently quenched the conflict. Those events in June 2010 convinced Kyrgyzstan that it should not count on help from the CSTO and that this organization could not ensure the country’s security.
There are two reasons why Kyrgyzstan still remains in the CSTO today: firstly, any other force is even less trustworthy. For a number of reasons, Bishkek does not have very friendly relations with its neighbors, especially with Uzbekistan, where the shared border is practically sealed. Hostile relations between the two countries could flare up at any moment. Even Kazakhstan, with which former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed an allied treaty, continues to take steps that cloud bilateral relations. The Tajik border and the use of pastureland and water resources along the border constantly put relations between the two countries to the test as well. Kyrgyzstan has its most secure and stable relations with China, but centuries-old stereotypes mean it is impossible to consider China a guarantor of security. Despite a policy of non-interference and respect for Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty, which China consistently states and actively pursues, there remains a sense of a threat stemming from China. One would never think of relying on China to ensure military security even though its assistance is accepted gladly; for instance, for the strengthening of defense capabilities.
Nevertheless, there are many more people who think that NATO is able to ensure Kyrgyzstan’s security. Several political parties believe that if they came to power, the probability of change would be high. Young people, especially those who have studied in Turkey, Europe, and the U.S., are lukewarm about the CSTO and Kyrgyzstan’s participation in it. As Kyrgyz-Russian cooperation becomes more substantial, the number of pro-Western advocates decreases. Moreover, Islamic circles actively foster a negative attitude towards the U.S. and NATO. There is a strong opinion that the U.S. base is dangerous for Kyrgyz security since it is a possible target for Islamic attacks.
Yet the main factor keeping Kyrgyzstan in the CSTO is not so much relations with Russia, but the attitude towards Russia. Despite almost total neglect from Moscow in the first decade of the twenty-first century and the sobering pragmatism of the current Russian leadership, the overwhelming majority of Kyrgyz have warm feelings towards Russia. Few want to see foreign, including Russian, troops in the country, but everybody seems to believe that the Russian army can provide the most effective and acceptable protection in emergencies. This sentiment is key in keeping Kyrgyzstan in the CSTO.
HELP, NOT SCARE
One should think twice about accepting the compelling stereotype that the withdrawal of coalition troops from Afghanistan will have serious negative consequences for Central Asia.
First of all, no one is talking about a total withdrawal of troops, and enough external resources and mechanisms will most likely remain in place in Afghanistan to control the situation if there is a change in government. U.S. experts and even diplomats are saying quite openly that engagement with Afghanistan will continue indefinitely, but will take new forms.
Secondly, the dominant topic for Central Asian countries is not the export of Islamic terrorism, but control over Afghanistan’s northern territories. In fact, this issue concerns not only Afghanistan, but also relations among Central Asian states. Violent outbreaks in Afghanistan could spill over into other regions, including Central Asia.
I do not think one should seriously discuss the disturbing stories actively circulating, especially among Russian quasi experts, that the Americans intend to destabilize the situation in Central Asia as pretext to remain in the region after it withdraws from Afghanistan to keep Russia out. It is much more reasonable to assume that the U.S. will make an appropriate deal with China, which does not want destabilization in Central Asia, but regards Russia as an obstacle. The U.S. will offer Beijing leadership in the region, if not outright dominance.
Finally, there are grounds for suspicion that alarmists are using post-Afghan scenarios to mask other goals that are geographically closer to Russia, such as military and political control over Central Asia, a region that is important for Moscow both geopolitically and as a means of securing competitive advantages in gaining access to resources. At any rate, new realities and possibilities for the CSTO will arise in connection with the likely withdrawal of the anti-terrorism coalition forces from Afghanistan and with Uzbekistan’s stance after it suspended its membership in the bloc. These realities will not only be determined by the CSTO’s position and activities, but also by Moscow.
Important changes in Kyrgyzstan’s attitude towards the CSTO can come about through progress on the future of the Russian military base, Russia’s participation in the development of Kyrgyzstan’s energy potential, and payment of the Kyrgyz state debt. These changes will allow Bishkek to engage with this military-political bloc at a new level. Few understood why the country needed a Russian military base with no Russian investment or assets. Moreover, Moscow seems unwilling to forgive the “brotherly” nation’s relatively small debt, which the present Kyrgyz authorities now appear to consider exorbitant. Therefore, Kyrgyzstan’s reaction has included clumsy attempts to increase the rent for the base, impetuous demands for its timely payment, creating conflicts with Russian military and security services, and other such actions. However, now the long forgotten feeling is returning that Russia treats Kyrgyzstan as a friend.
In fact, the Russian leadership has approved a transfer of $1.1 billion in weapons, equipment, and hardware to Kyrgyzstan in what is seen to be a strong and multi-level move. The Kyrgyz army needs new weapons since NATO countries have paid for nearly everything that has been done in the country so far. Now such large-scale supplies of Russian military hardware and equipment will become the basis of the Kyrgyz army. Additionally, this will require that local military personnel be trained to use this equipment, which can only be done by Russia. As a result, the CSTO, which operates in the Russian format, will undoubtedly have the upper hand in the struggle between military standards.
Is this choice attractive to Bishkek? Will Kyrgyzstan get what Russia itself no longer needs? Although such – very different – questions are posed these days, one does not look a gift horse in the mouth.