When outsiders look at the various new post-Soviet integration projects they often see an attempt by Russia to impose its will on its neighbors; in Hillary Clinton's formulation, a move to "re-Sovietize" the region. The U.S., by contrast, likes to say that its policy in the former Soviet space are directed at allowing those states to maintain their "sovereignty and independence."
But that has it backwards, Russia is increasingly arguing. In a piece published Wednesday in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argues that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other post-Soviet security blocs allow members "a choice of their own pattern of development" while NATO demands strict "bloc discipline" of its members.
That Lavrov wrote an op-ed praising the SCO is already interesting enough: Russia has not always been so enthusiastic about the organization, which tends to carry more of a Chinese influence (the other members are the smaller Central Asian states in between the two powers: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). But since the crisis in Ukraine resulted in a huge rupture between Russia and the West, Moscow has sought to revive its ties to China and as a result has become noticeably more enthusiastic about the SCO.
But it's also interesting how Lavrov distinguished the SCO from other comparable blocs (he doesn't name NATO, but that is clearly what he means). The SCO is based on "the principles of equality, mutual respect, consideration for the interests of one another, a settlement of conflicts and disputes by political-diplomatic methods, and the recognition of the right of states to a choice of their own pattern of development," he writes. "This is why the SCO fully corresponds to the realities and requirements of the 21st century, unlike the archaic organizations inherited from the past era, based on a rigid bloc discipline."
This language of "rigid bloc discipline" has become a talking point of late; last month Lavrov used the same phrasing to differentiate NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as did CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha in June.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin made the same point more generally last fall: "The Eurasian Union is a project for maintaining the identity of nations in the historical Eurasian space in a new century and in a new world," he said. "We need to realise that there are probably countries and even entire regions that cannot function according to universal templates, reproducing the patterns of American or European democracy. Just try to understand that there is another society there and other traditions."
One could argue that this is making a virtue out of necessity, given the widely noted failure of CSTO and SCO members to support Russia's actions in Ukraine. And it's not clear how one would measure something like "rigidity of bloc discipline," but there are plenty of recent examples of schisms within NATO: the question of Georgian membership is one obvious current case. Lavrov, unfortunately, didn't specify exactly how and on what issues NATO enforces this discipline.
The CSTO, at least, hasn't always seen the "choice of their own pattern of development" as a positive thing; in 2011 it was discussing making member states adhere to common foreign policy positions.
Anyway, differences of opinion in the SCO seem bound to only grow. The group, which will hold its annual summit later this week in Dushanbe, is expected to agree on procedures for admitting new members, which a top Kremlin aide said could mean that India and Pakistan will join in 2015.