CSTO MINUS UZBEKISTAN: IMPLICATIONS FOR COLLECTIVE SECURITY IN CENTRAL ASIA
While Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov participated in the May 15 CSTO summit in Moscow, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on June 28 that Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the organization. This sudden and seemingly paradoxical decision is a consequence of a changing geopolitical context in the region and indicative of Uzbekistan’s preference for bilateral security arrangements. Not only did the decision once again reveal that the collective security organization lacks collectivity but it also raised the conceptual question of revising the existing regional security arrangements in Central Asia.
BACKGROUND: The modality of Uzbekistan’s membership in the CSTO has always been determined by the Uzbek leadership’s understanding and articulation of its national interests. It is noteworthy that the CIS collective security system was initially born in Tashkent: on May 15, 1992, the Collective Security Treaty (CST) was signed there by eight CIS states, including Uzbekistan. However, Tashkent refused to prolong the Treaty in 1998 and stopped its participation, expressing its frustration with the failure of the CST to provide for real security against the background of growing threats from Afghanistan.
In May 2002, the CST was transformed into a NATO-like military block – the CSTO. When the Andijan tragedy occurred in May 2005 and the West harshly criticized Uzbekistan for its indiscriminate use of force against terrorists, Tashkent altered its seemingly pro-Western foreign policy and decided in 2006 to accede to the CSTO. However, Uzbekistan has constantly refrained from participating in the military dimension of this proto-Alliance, and has supported only non-military cooperation. This is stipulated by the Uzbek legislation which prescribes a non-bloc or out-of-bloc foreign policy.
Uzbekistan’s reduced activity in the CSTO caused overt irritation among other members to the degree that Belarusian President Lukashenko even raised the question of excluding Uzbekistan from the CSTO last year. Finally, Karimov seemingly decided to put an end to Uzbekistan’s membership by his own initiative.
The rationale for Uzbekistan’s second departure from the alliance is not caused simply by frustration but is more complicated. It is noticeable that Uzbekistan’s new distancing from the CSTO was sudden, secretive, non-transparent, and seemingly determined by contextual factors. The discreet and ambiguous explanation of this decision given by the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed to alleged disagreements between Uzbekistan and the CSTO regarding the organization’s position and role in Afghanistan after 2014. However, it seems that Uzbekistan wanted to free itself from its obligations within the CSTO for more serious reasons which can have far reaching implications.
IMPLICATIONS: Lukashenko’s demarche against Uzbekistan last year was a disservice to the CSTO. Karimov responded in order to reveal the weaknesses of the Russian-led collective security system.
By canceling its membership in the CSTO, Uzbekistan can kill three birds with one stone. First, Tashkent’s long pursued strategy of delaying, if not halting, the post-Soviet integration revitalized recently by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who initiated the creation of the Eurasian Union, is furthered by this move. Among all integration structures in the post-Soviet space, the CSTO has had the ambition to become the most advanced and functional one. Uzbekistan’s pendulum-like foreign policy balancing between Moscow and Washington (and Beijing) requires a bilateral and eclectic security arrangement by Tashkent rather than a loose collective security system.
Second, Tashkent takes advantage of its newly improved relations with the U.S. and NATO, especially in the wake of the operation in Afghanistan. It should be recalled that the U.S. and Uzbekistan are de jure strategic partners according to an agreement made in 2002. This strategic partnership can require, among other things, Tashkent’s assistance to Washington in the event of an anti-Iranian endeavor. The CSTO would hardly support the U.S. in this respect. Moreover, it is not unlikely that NATO will design a special Central Asian Strategy, similar to the EU Strategy, and that Uzbekistan as part of the NATO PfP Program will be a key partner to the Alliance in the region. In this regard, the CSTO membership will only create friction in Uzbekistan-NATO partnership.
Third, Uzbekistan gets a chance to restore its informal status as a regional leader. The CSTO has failed to ensure that regional problems, especially those between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are fairly resolved. Karimov might have decided to deal with this problem outside the CSTO. In this respect, the isolated and weakened Iran cannot provide strategic and political support for Tajikistan – its Persian-speaking ally – which will then be more exposed to Uzbekistan’s pressure.
The recent emergence of these three factors in the post-Soviet and Central Asian geopolitical reality has decisively limited the value of CSTO membership for Uzbekistan. The new reality has predetermined a new turn in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. At the same time, Tashkent has only announced that it suspends its membership in the CSTO but has not announced full withdrawal. It is symptomatic in this regard that on June 4, Vladimir Putin made a one-day visit to Tashkent, and especially noticeable that the two Presidents signed a Declaration “On Deepening of Strategic Partnership between the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation” during that visit. In addition, a Memorandum of understanding between the two states on further joint measures to include the Republic of Uzbekistan in the Free Trade Zone was signed in October 2011.
These frameworks for bilateral cooperation suggest that Tashkent prioritizes bilateral relations in security-related matters, in turn implying that the foreign policy pendulum can easily swing back.
CONCLUSIONS: Karimov’s recent open expression of concern about the anticipated flash of terrorist and extremist activity in the region after the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan sharply contrasts with his reluctance to obtain security assistance from the CSTO in this upcoming situation. On the one hand, this paradoxical foreign policy is a message that Uzbekistan’s national interests constitute the priority in international and regional affairs; but on the other, the content of those national interests remains unclear.
Uzbekistan’s sudden counter-integrative action revealed not simply the lack of collectivity in the CSTO, but also a more fundamental issue, namely the need for revising the principles of multilateral security arrangements in the post-Soviet space and post-cold-war era. Such arrangements could be more flexible, implying that states can be members of a certain collective security alliance at their own choice but also that no single alliance should be considered as the exclusive and best security provider for its members. The central and challenging question to be solved in this context is about the mutual compatibility of the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security architectures based on the perception of common threats and the deeply interconnected security of these two spaces.
The CSTO’s ambiguous new plan concerning Afghanistan and Uzbekistan’s failure to comply gave rise to important questions regarding this organization’s capability and functionality in the Central Asian region. The CSTO is strong enough to provide security services for its members. The recent démarche by Tashkent, however, illustrates that the CSTO, albeit strong and functional per se, cannot meet all security needs of countries such as Uzbekistan who seek larger cooperative security formats rather than a narrow collective security arrangement.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director for the Education and Research Institution “Bilim Karvoni,” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.