In Another Central Asian Security Crisis, Moscow Again Stands Aside
A security crisis in Central Asia has yet again raised questions about the efficacy of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to maintain peace in the region.
The dispute between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over an undelimited part of their border was resolved over the weekend without any shots being fired, as both sides pulled back the armored vehicles and troops they had deployed.
But before that happened, Kyrgyzstan called a special session of the CSTO's permanent council in Moscow. (Kyrgyzstan is a member of the organization, while Uzbekistan is not, having dropped out in 2012.) But the response from Moscow was mild: the organization's deputy secretary general was dispatched to Bishkek to monitor the situation.
The CSTO's (and by extension Russia's) relative passivity once again gave ammunition to the critics who say that the organization is focused on phantom threats (like spillover of radical Islam from Afghanistan) or Russia's geopolitical posturing, rather than the real security threats its member states face.
"As tension grows on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, it must be stated that the CSTO is again remaining indifferent to the security problems of its member states," wrote Belarusian analyst Sergey Ostryna. Ostryna noted that while border problems in Central Asia continue to fester, the CSTO has done nothing to address them.
"Soon it may be that the basic question on the agenda... will be the suspension of membership or complete withdrawl of one of the members from the CSTO. There are precedents for this: Georgia and Azerbaijan left the organization in 1999, and Uzbekistan suspended its membership in 2012," Ostryna wrote. "Only time will show who is next..."
"Here we need to take into consideration that Kyrgyzstan is a collective security ally of Russia," added analyst Vladimir Mukhin, in a column in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "Moscow gives Kyrgyzstan substantial military aid, and in return gets permission to operate the Kant air base in that country. After Kyrgyzstan entered the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 the border of the country became, in fact, the southern boundary of this integrated union. And so Russia can not be indifferent to the sovereignty and condition of the borders of Bishkek. But if you recall, for the entire post-Soviet history Russia has never sent its soldiers to aid Bishkek in matters of defense and security. However, taking into account the semi-collapse of the [Commonwealth of Independent States] and the appearance in the post-Soviet space of regimes unfriendly to Moscow, these questions are now relevant not just for Moscow but for all the countries of the CSTO."
The peaceful resolution of the conflict, even without the CSTO's involvement, gives credence to the organizations's defenders. "Why should the CSTO decisively react to this situation?" asked Russian analyst Andrey Grozin, in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa before the situation was resolved. "There hasn't been a single shot fired, it's disputed territory where both sides are trying to show their toughness. So what would be the point of the CSTO here? ... In my opinion, this conflict will soon resolve itself, all previous similar conflicts have finished that way."
The situation was complicated by the fact that regional opposition figures, in protests about the border conflict, called for the involvement of the CSTO because the current government in Bishkek was incapable of resolving the situation on its own. President Almazbek Atambayev accused the oppositioners of playing the CSTO card to exacerbate the situation for their own benefit.
"I was shocked that my allies in the opposition decided to appeal to Vladimir Putin," said MP Ravshan Zheenbekov, in an interview with RFE/RL. "If the Kyrgyz side appeals to [Russia], there's no guarantee that it will resolve the problem in our favor. If we give Putin the authority, and he solves the problems in Uzbekistan's favor, then what? This demonstrates that representatives of the opposition don't completely understand national interests and the geopolitical situation."
Thanks to Uzbekistan's decision to pull back its forces, Russia and the CSTO are off the hook -- this time. But no doubt Moscow's response to this crisis, and Russia's reliability generally, is being carefully examined not just in Bishkek, but in Minsk, Dushanbe, and Yerevan, as well.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.
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