With an Armenian (Finally) in Charge, Will CSTO Alter Course?
After a delay of more than a year, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc has appointed a new secretary general, a former senior Armenian military official. But whether this will tilt the organization towards Yerevan's interests remains to be seen.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has announced that its new head will be Yuri Khachaturov, who served as chief of general staff of Armenia's armed forces from 2008-2016. The appointment ends a long saga that began in 2015 when the CSTO announced that the only secretary general it's ever had, Russian KGB officer Nikolay Bordyuzha, would step down and be replaced by an Armenian, following (they said) alphabetical order. (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan are the other member states.)
But that was followed by a long series of delays, including the withdrawal of the apparent first choice to replace Bordyuzha, former defense minister Seyran Ohanian, as well as apparent passive-aggressive efforts by Kazakhstan and Belarus -- possibly under the influence of Azerbaijan -- to block the appointment of an Armenian.
But now that all has been resolved. It's not clear what the solution was, but the regional consensus seems to be that it was Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who was holding up the deal. Some observers suggested that the key move may have been Russia floating a billion-dollar loan to Belarus. That loan, wrote Hayk Khalatyan in EADaily, "made Lukashenko sign the [Eurasian Economic Union] Customs Code and become more negotiable in other issues too. Hence, the long-awaited approval of the next secretary general of CSTO."
The delay "was connected with Belarus-Russia relations," said Armenian analyst Alexander Iskandaryan. "Belarus, or Lukashenko, are using any platform in order to achieve their political goals. Sooner or later they [Belarus and Russia] were going to come to an agreement, and that's what happened."
It's perhaps worth noting here that several officials in Armenia's ruling party recently suggested that Belarus should be kicked out of the CSTO over the episode of a travel blogger whom Belarus extradited to Azerbaijan for visiting (illegally, according to Baku) Nagorno Karabakh.
Now that an Armenian is at the organization's head, can we expect any changes in how it operates? It's particularly sensitive in that one of the most likely crises that the CSTO will have to deal with will be an flareup in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh. CSTO member states are obliged to collectively defend one another, but the nature of the CSTO's intervention in a more serious conflict over Karabakh has never been clear. It's made less clear by the fact that the CSTO is only obliged to defend Armenia itself, not Karabakh, which while controlled by Armenian forces remains de jure part of Azerbaijan. But that distinction could get fuzzy should a real war actually break out.
The affairs of the CSTO are pretty opaque, so it's not clear how much influence the secretary general has. Big decisions are made on the agreement of a majority of all members, but then there also must have been a reason that a Russian security services officer was the secretary general for over a decade.
In any case, some analysts have noted that the fact that Khachaturov is Armenian may actually work against Armenian interests. "On the one hand, the CSTO position could be stronger" on Karabakh, said Armenian analyst Vigen Akopyan, in an interview with Sputnik Armenia. "On the other hand it could be much more delicate, cautious, to not make it seem that Khachaturov is biased."
Armenian defense minister Vigen Sargsyan made the same point: "We need to keep in mind that Khachaturov is not a citizen of Armenia there, but an international official, who has to observe limitations and rules."
Obviously, Khachaturov's moves -- and those of the CSTO generally -- are going to be closely watched for any signs of a policy shift in the organization. He officially takes over on May 2.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.