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CSTO Rift Grows Between Moscow And Astana

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev at a CSTO meeting in Moscow in 2012.

On June 22, Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Russian State Duma's Committee on Defense, announced that Russian military officials were holding talks with their colleagues in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan about the potential deployment of Kazakh and Kyrgyz peacekeepers to Syria.

Even though Russian and Turkish officials were cautiously optimistic that Kazakhstan would agree to deploy troops to Syria, Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhamov swiftly denied Shamanov's statement, telling reporters on June 23 that "Kazakhstan is not negotiating with anyone about sending its military service personnel to Syria."

Kazakhstan's emphatic refusal to deploy peacekeepers to Syria contrasted markedly with Kyrgyzstan's openness to a potential deployment, and reveals a growing rift between Astana and Moscow over the mandate of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

While Russia has pushed the CSTO in an interventionist direction to bolster its international credibility as a peacekeeping force, Kazakhstan has argued that the CSTO should refrain from military involvement in the Syrian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts. Astana's support for a hands-off CSTO can be explained by widespread internal opposition to Kazakh troop deployments in conflict zones and Kazakhstan's desire to assert its foreign policy independence from Russia.

Destabilization Fears


Kazakhstan's refusal to endorse Russia's CSTO military intervention proposal in Syria can be explained by President Nursultan Nazarbaev's concerns that deploying Kazakh troops in conflict zones would cause political instability in Kazakhstan.

Political opposition to Kazakh troop deployments in Syria would likely come from three principal sources: the Kazakh parliament (Mazhilis), Kazakh veterans groups, and Sunni religious leaders.

As public opposition to a CSTO military intervention resulting in Kazakh civilian casualties is so pervasive, Central Asia security expert Uran Botobekov argued in a recent Jamestown Foundation report that parliamentary resistance to military deployments in Syria was possible, even if Nazarbaev acquiesced to Russia's demands.

Although Nazarbaev's Nur Otan party overwhelmingly dominates the Kazakh parliament and can easily quash dissent, last year's anti-Chinese protests over Kazakh land-reform legislation revealed that disregarding public opinion has negative political consequences.

Therefore, deferring to public opinion on military deployments will prevent unrest in Kazakhstan and strengthen Nazarbaev's position by lending symbolic credibility to Astana's January 2017 constitutional reforms, which formally reduced the scope of Nazarbaev's presidential powers.

Afghan War Vets

In addition to the potential for public unrest facilitated by dissenting parliamentary factions, Astana's refusal to deploy troops to Russia's proposed CSTO mission in Syria can be explained by Nazarbaev's concerns about dissent from Kazakh veterans groups.

These concerns are relevant, as Kazakh veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan expressed virulent opposition to Kazakhstan's May 2011 decision to deploy troops alongside NATO's ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

Kazakh Afghan war veterans at a press conference in 2011.
Kazakh Afghan war veterans at a press conference in 2011.

In response to Kazakhstan's participation in the Afghanistan war, the Coordination Council of Public Organizations, which represents Kazakh war veterans, declared that the deployment of Kazakh troops to Afghanistan would endanger Kazakh civilians and cause irreconcilable rifts within Kazakhstan's Islamic community.

As Afghan war veterans openly called for the resignation of the Kazakh parliament in 2011, Nazarbaev's desire to prevent unrest amongst this group likely contributed to his decision not to deploy Kazakh troops to Syria.

Salafist Rumblings

Sunni Islamist organizations are the third major opposing faction to Kazakhstan's participation in a CSTO military intervention in Syria.

Cooperation with Russia would overtly align Astana with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Alawi Shi'ite regime. As Sunni extremists in southern Kazakhstan, like Marat Maulenov, have urged Kazakh Islamists to join the struggle against Assad in Syria, Nazarbaev was concerned that sending Kazakh troops to Syria on Assad's behalf could trigger a counterdeployment of Kazakh Sunni extremists to IS-held regions of Syria.

This retaliatory counterdeployment could empower underground Salafist movements in Kazakhstan, and increase the likelihood of Syria-linked ISIS terror attacks on Kazakh soil.

Foreign Policy Independence

In addition to the political instabilities that could have resulted from deploying troops to Syria, Kazakhstan's tensions with Russia over the CSTO's mandate underscore Nazarbaev's desire to showcase Astana's foreign policy independence from Moscow.

Kazakhstan's responses to regional security crises have consistently emphasized the importance of all-inclusive political settlements and called for a neutral CSTO. This approach differs greatly from Russia's attempts to link the CSTO's mandate to its broader geopolitical interests.

One of the areas where Kazakhstan has shown its independence has been in hosting Syria peace talks in Astana. (file photo)
One of the areas where Kazakhstan has shown its independence has been in hosting Syria peace talks in Astana. (file photo)

Kazakhstan's approach to CSTO involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh exemplifies Astana's divergence from Russia on the CSTO's mission.

On July 14, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Armenia, Timur Urazaev, stated that the CSTO should refrain from intervening militarily in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Instead of using force, Urazaev argued that the international community should resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by facilitating diplomatic negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Kazakhstan's strategy contrasts markedly with Russia's stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, which has consistently emphasized the CSTO's commitment to protecting Armenia's sovereignty from Azerbaijani military aggression.

Canceled Visit

Kazakhstan's resistance to CSTO involvement on Armenia's behalf is closely intertwined with its membership in the Turkic Council, an organization that includes Azerbaijan. As journalist Areg Galstyan noted in March, Kazakhstan frequently lobbies for pro-Azerbaijani interests within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and successfully convinced Russia to move the location of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council from Armenia to Russia.

Kazakhstan's solidarity with Azerbaijan could also explain Nazarbaev's decision to cancel his visit to Armenia for the October 2016 CSTO meeting. Even though Nazarbaev explained his absence on health grounds, Kazakh political analyst Aidos Sarym told the Reuters news agency on October 11, that Nazarbaev's "illness" was an excuse to avoid meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian.

Urazaev's statement suggests that Kazakhstan's resistance to the Russia-Armenia alliance has extended to the security sphere, and illustrates how Kazakh policymakers are using their disagreement with Russia over the CSTO's mandate to assert Astana's foreign policy independence from Moscow.

Syria Mediation

Kazakhstan's refusal to deploy troops in a CSTO military campaign on Assad's behalf can also be explained by Astana's desire to demonstrate its outsized influence in world affairs. Even though Kazakhstan maintains diplomatic relations with Syria's Ba'athist regime, Nazarbaev has deviated from Russia's staunch pro-Assad approach by highlighting Astana's role as a neutral mediator in the Syrian conflict.

Since the inception of Russia's military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Kazakhstan has abstained from voting in UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime's chemical weapons use and established robust diplomatic links with Syrian opposition factions.

If Kazakhstan had contributed to Russia's proposed CSTO peacekeeping mission in Syria, its reputation as a diplomatic arbiter in Syria would have been irreparably compromised and the impartiality of the Astana talks would have been seriously questioned.

However, by openly resisting Russia's proposed CSTO military intervention in Syria on Assad's behalf, Kazakhstan can showcase its effectiveness as a mediator in the Syrian conflict, bolstering Nazarbaev's stature in the international community.

Even though Kazakhstan remains a critical Russian security partner, Nazarbaev's support for a non-interventionist CSTO reveals a growing rift between Astana and Moscow on how best to handle international crises.

As Kazakhstan's refusal to deploy troops in CSTO peacekeeping missions helps prevent antigovernment unrest, and highlights Kazakhstan's foreign policy independence from Russia, the Moscow-Astana rift over the CSTO is likely to be an enduring feature of the bilateral relationship for years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Diplomat magazine. He can be followed on Twitter and on Facebook.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Uzbekistan's recently launched 24-hour television news channel recently expressed rare criticism of the policies of the late President Islam Karimov.

On the evening of July 27, the high and mighty of Uzbekistan gathered for a dinner in Tashkent to honor the memory of the country’s first president, Islam Karimov, who died last year.

The choice of date itself was interesting because, in accordance with Uzbek custom, it appeared to mark 11 months since Karimov’s death. This would seem to indicate he died on August 27, the day he had his stroke, and not September 2, when his death was officially announced.

In any case, President Shavkat Mirziyoev; the head of the security service, Rustam Inoyatov; Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov; and others, including leading religious figures, assembled in Tashkent to offer one last round of praise to the man to whom many of them owed their careers and their success.

The next day, they started to tear Karimov’s legacy apart.

The first salvo came at the weakest link in Karimov’s family: his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova.

The would-be international socialite had fallen from grace several years before, as her connections to illegal business deals started to become public.

Apparently too dangerous and embarrassing to be allowed to roam free, Gulnara was detained and placed under house arrest in Uzbekistan in 2014. Early photographs showing her incarceration at home were the last images ever seen of her.

The Uzbek Prosecutor-General’s Office officially placed her under arrest only recently, on July 28, and for the first time it became known that Gulnara had been under investigation in Uzbekistan since late 2013 and had been convicted in August 2015 and sentenced to five years of “limited freedom” -- meaning, in this case, house arrest.

One of the last photographs of Gulnara Karimova, purportedly showing her being put under house arrest in 2014.
One of the last photographs of Gulnara Karimova, purportedly showing her being put under house arrest in 2014.

A statement from the Prosecutor-General's Office said Gulnara’s illegal activities had cost Uzbekistan some $2 billion and that investigations were still “ongoing to track down other assets belonging to [Gulnara’s] criminal group ensuring their return to Uzbekistan.”

OK, most people in Uzbekistan knew about Gulnara. In one of the cables posted by WikiLeaks, a U.S. diplomat purportedly described her as “the most hated person in Uzbekistan.” Demonizing Gulnara is easy for Uzbek authorities.

But on July 30, Uzbekistan’s new round-the-clock television channel -- Uzbekistan 24 -- aired a program that essentially praised President Mirziyoev but mentioned that he was battling difficulties he had inherited.

The program never mentioned Karimov by name but contained phrases such as: “The announcement, from the first hours of [Mirziyoev’s] rule, that relations with close neighbors were not a battle for dominance, but on the contrary, sincerity and trust for one another...”

Uzbekistan’s ties with its immediate neighbors were strained, to say the least, when Karimov was president.

Great credit should go Mirziyoev for the progress his government has made in less than one year in its relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. The program on Uzbekistan 24 mentioned that “problems...were resolved not by asserting claims, emphasizing superiority, and acting like a gamecock, but by a single kind word and unceasing work...”

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has improved the country's relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has improved the country's relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan’s economy is having a hard time and is reflected in the black-market rate, which is now about twice the official rate, of around 4,000 Uzbek soms to one U.S. dollar.

The program noted this also, describing the economic policy as “disgraceful” and saying: “All the criticisms toward Uzbekistan from leading economic organizations, all the accusations of unprofessionalism by all specialists, were voiced only because of the hard-currency policy.”

And again, according to the program, “all these problems are gradually being resolved thanks to the reforms started by [Mirziyoev].”

Uzbekistan certainly does have problems, and it is true these problems originated during Karimov’s time in power.

Since Mirziyoev took over as Uzbekistan’s leader, many authorities on Central Asia have been watching to see how much Uzbekistan’s second president would resemble Turkmenistan’s second president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

Berdymukhammedov started out with fair words and some efforts at improvement, but after a year or two he settled into the style of rule his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, had practiced -- one characterized by the notion of an infallible, omnipotent leader.

One big difference here is that Berdymukhammedov came to power when Turkmenistan was becoming richer from its gas sales, which in turn were helped by higher world prices and the appearance of China as a gas customer.

There was a knock-on effect on the standard of living in Turkmenistan.

Berdymukhammedov had no need for a scapegoat.

Mirziyoev came to power at a time when Uzbekistan was facing a serious economic crisis. Inevitably, he needed to find something, or someone, to blame for the poor situation in his country.

He has found someone, and the case of Gulnara and veiled criticisms of Uzbekistan’s first president are probably only the start of a campaign that portrays Mirziyoev as bringing Uzbekistan to its feet after his predecessor brought the country to its knees.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service Director Alisher Sidik and Sirojiddin Tolibov of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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