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Russia Seeks Support For Tough Line

  • Bruce Pannier

The leaders of Afghanistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in Dushanbe

The presidents of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are gathering in the Tajik capital for the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is likely to seek the organization's support for Russia's tough line on Georgia.

The SCO in the past has thrown its full support behind Russia's efforts in Chechnya and also Kyrgyzstan's, Tajikistan's, and Uzbekistan's struggle against Islamic militants in 1999 and 2000. It also backed the Uzbek government for its handling of the Andijon violence in May 2005 that drew widespread international condemnation.

The SCO was formed in 2001 when Uzbekistan joined the five original members of the Shanghai Five. The original group, established in 1996, sought to build confidence along the Sino-CIS border by agreeing to troop reductions and a withdrawal of forces to positions away from the common border.

Having succeeded in that goal, the group expanded its scope to include economic and trade cooperation and, later, security cooperation. Often portrayed in Western media as an evolving military bloc, the SCO has actually been much more successful in facilitating trade and encouraging cultural exchanges.

Joining officials from the five member countries at this year's summit are officials from Mongolia, Pakistan, Iran, and India -- all of whom have SCO observer status -- as well as the leaders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

Separatist Problems

This year's summit is expected to voice support for Russia's military actions in support of Georgian separatist regions in the Caucasus and China's campaign against separatist forces in Tibet and Xinjiang.

However, analysts say Russia might struggle to gain SCO support over the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Matthew Clements, the Eurasia editor at the London-based Jane's Information group, says China, which itself has been fighting independence bids by Uyghurs and Tibetans, is likely to be displeased with the recent events in the Caucasus.
Ethnic Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

"The fact that China has its own separatist problems, certainly in Xinjiang Province and in Tibet especially, makes it a very sensitive topic and [China's] always been very antiseparatist," Clements says. "The precedent of giving such support to the Georgian separatist regions and potentially offering them independence or even union with Russia would be something that would be very sensitive for China indeed."

Before Russia recognized them as independent, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were described for more than a decade as separatist regions within Georgia. The Chinese government declared years ago that "separatism" was one of "three evils" along with extremism and terrorism. As Clements notes, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not examples Beijing wants independence-minded people in Xinjiang and Tibet to see.

Kazakhstan also has its own "separatist" issue connected to Russia.

Ethnic Russians Abroad

In the late 1990s, a group of ethnic Russians were arrested in Kazakhstan's northeastern city of Ust-Kamensk (also called Ust-Kamenogorsk) and eventually convicted of illegal possession of weapons, formation of an organized criminal group, and calling for the overthrow of the constitutional government of Kazakhstan.

The group reportedly wanted to join parts of northeastern Kazakhstan to Russia -- and they weren't alone.

During the 1990s, there were several Slavic groups living in the regions by the Siberian border with Russia, including Cossack communities, who also wanted northern Kazakhstan ceded to Russia.

Analysts noted that when the Kazakh government decided in the late 1990s to move the country's capital from the southern city of Almaty northward to the forbidding steppe of Astana, it was in part a move to stake Kazakhstan's claim to its northern regions.

Central Asian states also have their own problems with separatism.

"The area around the Ferghana Valley is a mismatch of various pockets of ethnicities within the states, especially the large Uzbek populations within Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan," Clements says. "The fear for these Central Asian states is the precedent set in perhaps offering independence to Abkhazia or South Ossetia and support for them could kick-start something in this region."

Clements adds that the ethnic Uzbeks of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would probably prefer to be citizens of those two countries as the Uzbek government has earned a reputation as one of the region's most authoritarian.

Statement Expected

The Uzbek government also has its own worries. There is a large ethnic-Tajik population in Uzbekistan and the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were actually part of Tajik states in the past (the founder of the Tajik nation, Ismail Somoni, is buried in Bukhara). There are also the Karakalpaks of western Uzbekistan, who are ethnically and linguistically different from Uzbeks -- and their territory is located some 1,000 kilometers from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

An additional consideration in the aftermath of Russia's recent moves in the Caucasus is the ethnic-Russian factor in Central Asia. The majority of South Ossetians and Abkhaz had Russian citizenship, something not true about ethnic Russians in Central Asia today.

But the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin articulated a policy that saw the protection of ethnic Russians living on the territory of the former Soviet Union as an obligation for the Russian government. New President Dmitry Medvedev has already repeated this is still the policy.

What just happened in the Caucasus serves as a reminder to the Central Asian governments that Russia already has a ready pretext for interfering in the region.

The presidents are expected to release a traditional joint declaration at the end of the summit on August 28 and name a new rotating SCO chairman, which should be Russia as the next summit is due to be held in Yekaterinburg.

Clements believes Russia will get SCO support for its actions in the Caucasus, but the wording of this support will be carefully phrased in the statement released at the end of this SCO summit.
Shanghai Cooperation Organization
What Is It?
* China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan set the group up in Shanghai in 2001.
* It grew out of the Shanghai Five, which was founded in 1996 to demilitarize the border between China and the former Soviet Union.
* In 2004 and 2005, it accepted Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, and India as observers.
* The member states occupy a territory of over 30 million square kilometers and have a population of 1.5 billion.

Strategic Significance
* An antiterrorism center was opened in Shanghai in 2003. Russia and China held their first joint military exercises, Peace Mission 2005, in August 2005.
* The group held joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in 2006 and in Russia in 2007.

Economic Significance
* Competition for Central Asian energy supplies has increased the level of interest in the organization.
* Uzbekistan signed a $600 million joint energy exploration deal with China in 2006.