It’s Harder to See CSTO’s Raison d'Être Without Tashkent

Kazakhstan enjoys pretty good relations with Russia, and Uzbekistan has pretty bad relations with Russia. This traditional basis of their relationship is going to be reinforced by Uzbekistan's pullout from the CSTO.

On June, 28 Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military-political alliance led by Russia. James Nixey, Manager and Research Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, shares his views on the reasons and results of this decision with the Valdai Club.

What are the possible consequences of this decision for regional security?

As of today it is rather hard to predict the future of the CSTO without Tashkent or the future of Tashkent outside of the organization, but I don't expect that for regional security the consequences of this decision are as great as the consequences of a U.S. pullout of Afghanistan which will have tremendous implications for the region. I don't see immediate implications of Tashkent’s pullout from the CSTO, it rather represents a perhaps temporary, shift in alliances. The Uzbekistan question is more an issue of where it will ally itself with now. In other words, Uzbekistan's security was not particularly solidly guaranteed by its CSTO membership. Kyrgyzstan's security certainly wasn't guaranteed by it.

However, the main issue for Russia is whether the Americans will get the base in Uzbekistan? That's also the main question for Tashkent policy now, and only Karimov has the answer. According to some information doing the rounds in the expert community, the answer is yes, the US will play a greater role again. The security pattern may change and it leads to profound ructions in the balance of forces.

What will be the influence of this decision for Russia's position in Central Asia?

That is an interesting question, because Uzbekistan is problematic, inconsistent and unreliable from the Russian point of view. Tashkent is straying from that fold, which means a small decline in Russia's grip on the region. However, we must not forget that it's a region where Russia is not tremendously engaged. Russia seems to be unwilling to get itself into some of the squabbles in the Central Asia, unless it needs to protect its assets. However, today Russia is not so concerned with Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO. But more broadly, it speaks to the idea that Russia's fortunes in the area fluctuate.

What about China? The Chinese have enormous economic assets in the region. Will they be able to fill the security vacuum with Uzbekistan?

China always demands analytical attention, but it has close links to other countries, in particular to Kyrgyzstan through investment, to Kazakhstan through energy resources in particular, and also to Turkmenistan through investment and pipelines. More importantly, there is no tradition of Chinese security involvement in the region, except of course through the SCO. Thus, I don’t expect China to fill the security vacuum in the region on bilateral basis. But it is common knowledge that the USA has security interests in the region, but by 2014 they won’t have Kyrgyzstan’s transit centre in Manas, so the more likely vacuum filler is America, but for the immediate future only. But that can all change.

Nazarbayev announced a new Silk Road in his recent speech at the Astana Economic Forum. How do you assess this project? Will it serve as some kind of complement to the U.S. strategy of a modern Silk Road, or is it more with the Eurasian Union announced by Putin?

It's a little bit of both. Nazarbayev is the master at coming up with grands projets. He is also the master at playing both sides. So, Kazakhstan’s Silk Road is indeed a kind of counterbalance to the Eurasian Union. Astana has accepted the Customs Union, even though it does not particularly benefit Kazakhstan. Moreover, Nazarbayev is particularly close to Russia these days. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say Kazakhstan is dominated by Russia, he does have one of the best relationships with Moscow in the region. Nazarbayev's Silk Road is more designed to promote Kazakhstan as the leading Central Asian power, than anything else. It's a very typical Nazarbayev idea.

Kazakhstan is constantly fighting or competing for influence in the region with Uzbekistan. What will be Russia's stake in this competition?

Broadly speaking, Kazakhstan enjoys pretty good relations with Russia, and Uzbekistan has pretty bad relations with Russia. This traditional basis of their relationship is going to be reinforced by Uzbekistan's pullout from the CSTO. But it will not change the overall pattern of relationships; instead it will reinforce and entrench already well-ploughed ground.

Will Russia be able to reform the CSTO without Uzbekistan and what will be the lines of this reform?

Reform is needed. The CSTO is large and it will survive with the loss of any other single member except Russia. So, it can surely survive without a fairly problematic member like Uzbekistan, which fluctuates in its policy and alliance commitments. The question is really, to what extent does the CSTO have any broader use? If Uzbekistan is not in the picture, and if the organization is unwilling to intervene in Kyrgyzstan as we have seen, and intervening in Nagorno-Karabakh in the case of a pre-emptive Azerbaijani attack is far from guaranteed, then I would suggest that the CSTO does not have particularly bright prospects. Thus, the recent developments again raise question of CSTO’s existence. It becomes harder to see its raison d'être without Uzbekistan. So, the main line of possible reform is to redefine the CSTO’s aims and goals.

Will Uzbekistan renew its membership? In 2008, for example, it renewed its membership?

Today it's impossible to predict the future vector of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy, because it is the most unreliable, and one of the most unstable countries in the region. Karimov and Putin do not particularly get on, partly because Karimov himself is not a rational actor. Russia does not know how to treat him; the Kremlin is confused. On the other hand, Russia understands where the Kazakhs are coming from and the reasons for Astana’s foreign policy vector, and it makes Russia-Kazakhstan relations a very consistent and stable.

The problem with Uzbekistan is mostly caused by its internal situation and its human rights record. Because of this in the medium-term Karimov doesn't really have anywhere to go. Tashkent can try to go to the West for now, but in the event of internal protests, which might be dealt with by the use of force, the West will not be able to deal with Uzbekistan. In this situation Uzbekistan will be left out in the cold. It's like Ukraine – does Ukraine go west, or to Russia? It's the same question for Uzbekistan – neither to be with Russia, but nor are they admitted to the West.

Karimov and Nazarbayev are both very old people, with no clear successors. Is Russia ready for a possible power transition in these countries?

Russia wishes it knew, just like we all wish we knew, who will lead the Central Asian countries. However, in the case of the presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and partly Tajikistan, the situation can develop according to the Turkmenistan situation. After the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmenbashi, there wasn't a lot that Russia knew and there wasn't a lot that Russia could do about the situation. For example, Moscow couldn't influence the choice of the successor in Turkmenistan. But what Russia did do, was to try to influence the situation afterwards. This is the only real model that is possible under present conditions – nobody can influence who the successor is, but all the concerned actors can try to influence the successor when the choice is announced. Today Russia has no idea who will succeed Nazarbayev and Karimov. But you can be sure that as soon as a replacement is found, all the major powers will race to get them on side.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.