CSTO ABSORBS AN UZBEK TREMOR
Tashkent’s decision to suspend its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on June 20 prompted speculation about Uzbekistan’s apparently sudden policy reversal. Some observers restricted themselves to dismissing Tashkent as a troublesome and disagreeable partner both for Russia and the country’s Central Asian neighbors, while others advanced the argument that President Islam Karimov is preparing to host a new U.S. airbase in Uzbekistan. However, the timing of the decision, delayed public disclosure combined with the cautious statements on the issue by Moscow highlight a much deeper and complex picture. Indeed the unanswered question that emerges from Tashkent’s suspension of CSTO membership is about the timing of a widely anticipated move.
BACKGROUND: The precise chronology of events precipitating Tashkent’s decision is crucial to follow. The chronology falls into two parts; the immediate context in which the diplomatic note was dispatched to the CSTO secretariat in Moscow detailing Tashkent’s reasons to suspend its membership, and the deeper crisis that emerged in the organization since late 2008.
On June 20, 2012, Tashkent formally notified its allies of its decision to suspend CSTO membership. Confirmation of this step was only finally confirmed through media reporting on June 28; the gap between the two events suggests bilateral discussions were occurring between Moscow and Tashkent on the issue. That such talks were in progress is supported within the diplomatic note, which according to Uzbek MFA officials speaking off-the-record to Kommersant, noted that one of Tashkent’s concerns about the CSTO related to attempts to place Afghanistan on its agenda. Tashkent prefers such key issues to be dealt with at a bilateral level and not through multilateral channels. Other reasons specified in the note to justify Tashkent’s decision included concern about the long term trajectory of the organization and anxiety over increased military cooperation among its members.
The delay in publicly confirming Tashkent’s move no doubt involved discussions using bilateral channels with Moscow, but it also allowed all sides time to digest the development before formulating a detailed response. Important features in the context of the decision involved Tashkent’s high-level bilateral meetings with Moscow and Beijing, respectively. In early June, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited his Uzbek counterpart in Tashkent; the lengthy speech by President Karimov met with only a short and abrupt reply from Putin. Some observers of the meeting speculated that Karimov asked for a security guarantee from Putin in relation to post-2014 Afghanistan and its possibly negative impact on regional security. It is likely that Tashkent sought clarification about Russian security policy in Central Asia following the NATO exit from Afghanistan, and perhaps expected additional information on Moscow’s more active security role in the future. Around this time, Karimov told western diplomats that he personally regretted his decision in 2006 to join the CSTO. On June 6, a bilateral meeting between Tashkent and Beijing occurred in the Chinese capital during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. During this meeting, despite its refusal to participate in the SCO Peace Mission exercises in northern Tajikistan in June 2012, Uzbekistan signed a strategic partnership with China covering five key areas including security. Although there is no suggestion that Tashkent has secured any security guarantee from Beijing, the strategic partnership provides additional support for Tashkent to avoid any sense of geopolitical isolation that might result from suspending its CSTO membership.
IMPLICATIONS: Any pretense that the suspension of membership came as a surprise to other members of the CSTO simply ignores the deepening crisis in the organization that unfolded since its transformation began in 2007-2008. During each step of this transformation process, Tashkent opposed every element on a legal basis, though it essentially used legal arguments to mask its deeper geopolitical and security concerns. The initiative to create new CSTO rapid reaction forces in June 2009 was advanced by Astana at an unofficial summit in Borovoye in December 2008; Uzbekistan bitterly opposed the greatly expanded role envisaged for KSOR (?ollektivnyye Sily Operativnogo Reagirovaniya).
When KSOR was constructed and then began staging military exercises, given Uzbekistan’s refusal to participate the force was essentially a Kazakh-Russian led structure; the balance in the CSTO was already tilting away from Tashkent. Moreover, in order to expand the role of such a force to take action across a wider range of mission types, from a domestic crisis in a member state to emergency situations including man-made or natural disasters, CSTO members took steps to amend the Collective Security Treaty (CST) Charter, in order to move beyond collective defense against external aggression. The CSTO summits in December 2010 and December 2011 adopted such amendments and the latter also reached agreement to closely coordinate policy statements on key issues, as well as introduce the need for consensus among all members on the issue of foreign military basing.
Tashkent’s failure to sign a common policy statement during the CSTO summit in December 2011, mimicking EU or NATO communiqués, resulted in Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko suggesting that Uzbekistan should be asked to leave the CSTO; this statement was made at the request of the Kremlin. As Tashkent became increasingly isolated in the CSTO, and other members ratified agreements and pressed ahead with the transformation plans so deeply opposed by Uzbekistan, it was only a question of when and not if its membership would be suspended.
The real crisis within the CSTO was about the members of the organization reaching agreement on how to make the body more effective in facing emerging threats and coping with an unpredictable threat environment. Legally, until the amendments were made to the CST charter, the CSTO was restricted only to act against external aggression. With the 20,000 strong KSOR in place, and a much wider remit for action, including agreement on the mechanism to authorize the use of force, which moved away from the need for full consensus to a majority vote as its basis, Tashkent continued to press its legalistic arguments in vain. At heart, as the organization was transformed, Tashkent had to face the possibility that conflicts in the post-Soviet space may in the future become internationalized.
Paradoxically, the strict interpretation of the original CST charter by Tashkent, highlighting the need for consensus among members before undertaking any major decision also restricted Uzbekistan’s options. There is no clause in the charter that allows a CSTO member to suspend its membership. If a member chooses to leave it must inform others of its reasons and provide six months notification; only after all members agree can the exit legally occur.
CONCLUSIONS: Uzbekistan has not triggered a crisis within the CSTO, but given itself more room to pursue an independent defense and security policy as the country prepares for the post-2014 security environment. Equally, the longer term transformation of the CSTO, which Tashkent consistently opposed since 2008, has culminated in a work around allowing all sides to argue that they have protected their interests.
Moscow and other CSTO capitals expected such a decision at some point, but were uncertain about its precise timing. The CSTO will leave the door open for Uzbekistan to return to the organization. However, the widespread misunderstanding about Tashkent having suspended membership of the organization before, fails to recognize that Uzbekistan had avoided renewing membership of the CST, and that the CSTO was only formally created in 2002; Tashkent agreed to join the CSTO in 2006 but the body has undergone significant change since then. Without Uzbekistan, the CSTO will now consolidate its process of transformation. Nonetheless, Tashkent’s suspension of membership leaves the country neither fully inside nor out of the organization.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Roger N. McDermott is an Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen and an Advisory Scholar: Military Affairs, Center for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations (CRCR) Georgian College Ontario, Canada.