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SCO Summit: 'Beast Of The East' Appears To Have Lost Its Teeth

Presidents Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Emomali Rakhmon, Islam Karimov, and Hamid Karzai at SCO summit in Yekaterinburg on June 16

Presidents Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Emomali Rakhmon, Islam Karimov, and Hamid Karzai at SCO summit in Yekaterinburg on June 16

Any time the leaders of Russia and China meet, it's generally an event that merits global attention. Add in four presidents from the strategically important region of Central Asia -- as well as the potential guest attendance of leaders from Iran, India, and Pakistan -- and it's little wonder that many view the get-together with curiosity and apprehension.

Most of these same leaders have been gathering, in varying combinations, for the past decade, under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The SCO has sought to promote itself as a "rising beast in the East" and an Asian counter to NATO.

But for all the experience under its belt, the SCO -- which formally gathers Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan -- is looking less formidable than usual.

The group's latest summit began on June 15 in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, with a formal dinner ahead of more substantive talks the following day.

Manas Debate

One of the most contentious issues on the agenda -- and SCO agendas are typically dominated by Moscow and Beijing -- is the Manas Air Base on the territory of member Kyrgyzstan.

U.S. forces have been using the base since late 2001 to support operations in nearby Afghanistan. But the United States has begun to wind down its operations there after being ordered by Bishkek to vacate the base.

Many see the Kyrgyz decision as the result of pressure from Moscow and possibly Beijing.

Both China and Russia backed a move by Uzbekistan four years ago to hasten the departure of U.S. forces based there for Afghan support operations.

Russia's pledge of more than $1 billion in aid to Kyrgyzstan earlier this year appeared to sway the country's president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, into ordering the Manas closure.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a regular guest at SCO summits, although his country is not a formal member.

In Yekaterinburg, Karzai was expected to repeat his call for Kyrgyzstan to reconsider its decision to close Manas, which he says is vital to restoring stability to the country.

Bakiev appeared to acknowledge Karzai's concern in comments last week, ahead of both the SCO meeting and a June 14 gathering of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

"The situation in Pakistan is very grave; the situation in Afghanistan is [also] serious," Bakiev said. "In Pakistan, for instance, the number of refugees has climbed to 2 million. If the conflict against the Taliban deepens further in Afghanistan, which direction will people head in? God help us, they will move toward Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and beyond."

He urged fellow SCO, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Commonwealth of Independent States members to "discuss these issues during our forthcoming meetings."

Seeking Stability?

Bakiev was due to meet with Karzai on the sidelines of the Yekaterinburg summit. Ahead of the meeting, he put forward his own proposal for Afghanistan.

"We initiated a proposal. This is my proposal -- that Kyrgyzstan has to [host] such negotiations, in order to preserve peace in Afghanistan," Bakiev said. "We need to come to different kinds of talks" involving different elements of Afghan society, he added.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also planned to meet individually on the sidelines with Karzai, as well as with Pakistani President Ali Zardari, before moving on to three-way talks.

Kremlin officials have already said Medvedev wants to discuss expanding U.S.-NATO routes into Afghanistan, which could calm any apprehensions about closing Manas.

But while Medvedev spends time offering assurances to the Afghan and Pakistani leaders, he may be overlooking China's moves in Central Asia.

Chinese President Hu Jintao held individual one-on-one meetings with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan on June 15.

The Central Asian states increasingly appear to have more in common with China than they do with Russia, despite moves by Moscow during the past half-decade to shore up its position in the region.

The global economic crisis -- which will also be a topic in Yekaterinburg -- has hit Russia hard.

China, by contrast, has proven far more adept at combatting financial problems, and for the short term, at least, has proven a more reliable partner for Central Asian countries anxious for trade. China is still investing heavily in energy and mining projects in Central Asia.

Not All Rosy

The brief Russian-Georgian war last year has created the biggest fissure in SCO relations to date.

While the members gave lukewarm support to Russia's efforts to stabilize the Caucasus region, Moscow's subsequent call for recognition of Georgia's enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent political entities were not heeded by any SCO members.

China, still dealing with its own independence movements in Xinjiang and Tibet, is wary of any moves that appear to reward separatism. Some of the Central Asian states with large minority groups seeking greater autonomy sympathize with Beijing.

There is also a sense that the SCO is losing some of its momentum. Two years ago, the SCO summit was preceded by a massive joint military exercise on Chinese and Russian territories.

The exercises were top news around the world, as many contemplated a future alliance between countries with a combined population of 1.5 billion people, stretching across the Eurasian landmass and armed with modern weaponry, including nuclear weapons.

The SCO still holds joint military exercises, but on a much smaller scale and with much less publicity. China's participation in such events has decreased significantly.

Similarly, past SCO talk of greater economic cooperation has waned, with members now using the organization as a vehicle for bilateral, rather than multilateral, deals.

The group's main focus is largely reduced to cultural events. This year the SCO summit was being accompanied by a fashion show, a children's art exhibit, and -- in the lead-up to the gathering -- a tennis tournament.

However, this SCO summit is still providing a useful forum for observer nations India, Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia to meet with each other and with the full SCO members.

One of the most publicized events of this summit is a possible face-to-face meeting between the Indian and Pakistani leaders on the sidelines of the summit.

Iran's Mahmud Ahmadinejad may also participate in the gathering, although he has already postponed his arrival due to mounting post-election unrest in his country.

With hundreds of thousands of protesters reportedly turning out in support of Ahmadinejad's main rival, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi, many are waiting to see whether the Iranian leader may be forced to remain home.

The SCO continues to attract the interest of other countries. The Yekaterinburg summit is due to consider granting observer status to two new countries -- Belarus and Sri Lanka.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report