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Central Asia: SCO -- Shoring Up The Post-Soviet Status Quo

Presidents Putin and Hu on 1 July The Shanghai Cooperation Agreement (SCO) is the latest in a long line of organizations pretending to unify Central Asia. But with the active participation of China and Russia and general philosophy of propping up current elites in the region, the SCO seems to have the best chance of becoming a viable organization.

Central Asian summitry has provided many fine examples of just how mightily powerful men can try not to rock the boat. But the 5-6 July Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Kazakhstan made some unusual waves, thanks in part to a final declaration rife with great-power ramifications. But despite the appearance of change, the cardinal rule remains what it has always been -- don't rock the boat.

The creation of various organizations to unify, integrate, and otherwise empower Central Asia and surrounding environs has provided regional elites with one of their more enduring post-Soviet pastimes. Of late, the SCO -- which brings together China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- has drawn notice as the regional grouping with perhaps the best chance to emerge from acronym obscurity and become a viable multilateral forum.

The summit of SCO heads of state in Astana on 5 July saw the organization approve a counterterrorism conception and grant observer status to India, Iran, and Pakistan. But the main event came in the final declaration, which asked the forces in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to clarify a timeframe for withdrawal from U.S. bases in Central Asia. As quoted by Russia's "Kommersant-Daily," the declaration noted that several SCO countries have "provided their above-ground infrastructure for the temporary deployment of the military contingents of coalition member states." It continued, "Taking into account the conclusion of the active military phase of the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan, the member states of the SCO consider it essential for the appropriate participants in the antiterrorist coalition to decide on the final timeframes for the temporary use of the above-mentioned infrastructure objects and the maintenance of military contingents on the territory of SCO member states." One can almost hear the finger tapping on the face of the watch.

The best-known coalition facilities in Central Asia are, of course, the U.S. air bases in Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, and Manas, Kyrgyzstan, although NATO facilities are also located in Termez, Uzbekistan, and Kolub, Tajikistan. While the SCO declaration did not specifically mention the United States, virtually all observers took the request for greater clarity on a timeframe for withdrawal as a pointed message that U.S. forces in Central Asia are no longer as welcome as they were in the early days of the military operation that removed the Taliban regime.

Several Russian reports indicated that the call for a withdrawal deadline entered the text of the final declaration at the initiative of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose relations with the West, and the United States in particular, have been increasingly strained since the Uzbek government's violent suppression of unrest in Andijon on 13 May. Underscoring the seriousness of the matter, Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry followed up with a press release on 7 July that went considerably farther than the SCO declaration. The harshly worded statement urged a reevaluation of the U.S. base in Uzbekistan now that its original (and, the statement stressed, only) purpose -- the ouster of the Taliban regime -- is no longer relevant. It also grumbled that the United States has made "virtually no payments" to compensate the Uzbek side for the various expenses associated with the base's operations.

The difficulties in U.S.-Uzbek relations come amid an ongoing thaw in Uzbek-Russian relations, giving the whole issue of the SCO summit and its base-based declaration the whiff of the "great game" -- with its presumed battle among great powers for control of Eurasia -- that many observers of Central Asia find so addictive. But the real significance of the SCO summit has less to do with any longstanding struggles for control of Eurasia than it does with a consensus among like-minded elites in the face of what they increasingly perceive as a common threat.

Andrei Grozin, director of the Central Asia and Kazakhstan section of the CIS Institute, put his finger on this mood in a 4 July interview with Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta." Allowing that the SCO might become an "informal, but quite influential" bloc, Grozin stressed that its primary motivation is currently "a desire to create a working, functioning structure to support stability, to preserve those political systems that have taken shape in the post-Soviet Asiatic states."

The crucial point is that whether the SCO eventually becomes a "working, functioning structure," it currently brings together a group of ruling elites who have a shared understanding of stability as the status quo, see their self-interest in the maintenance of that status quo, and feel that it is threatened from without.

The core group consists of Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. For the ruling elites clustered around the respective leaders of Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, maintaining stability means securing predictable results in upcoming presidential elections. The threat runs a by-now familiar gamut from Georgia to Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan, and whichever form it might take, the Kazakh, Russian, and Tajik elites want none of it. In Uzbekistan, where the stakes are higher after Andijon, the maintenance of stability for Karimov and his allies is premised on the effective and unencumbered deployment of force to meet a presumed threat of force.

In this view, the Western focus on democratization and human rights is at best an intrusion, and at worst an outright menace. For the above-mentioned elites, a paradigm preferable to the meddlesome concept of universal standards might run: "In the sphere of human rights it is necessary to strictly and consistently respect historical traditions and the national customs of every people, as well as the sovereign equality of all states." The quotation comes from the SCO's 5 July declaration (as cited by Interfax-AVN), and it might well sum up the core group's vision for the SCO: a hands-off alternative and institutionalized counterweight to the strong-arm schoolmarms of the international community.

The vision's appeal extends beyond Russia and Central Asia. China's domestic political considerations are its own, but the preference for a "laissez-faire" policy on political and human rights in the SCO region fits in naturally with the Chinese-proclaimed struggle against the "three evils" of extremism, terrorism, and separatism, allowing them to be defined flexibly and fought vigorously. And if Kyrgyzstan and its new leadership seem the odd man out in this cozy consensus, it would surely be even odder for a small country in the midst of a political transition to try at the same time to swim against a regional political current.

Though the SCO consensus is not in essence anti-Western or anti-American, the negative impetus -- against the idea of universal values, against changes that might imperil the status quo, and against the concrete agents of change -- is likely to remain strong because so many obstacles lie elsewhere. Russian suspicions of an expansionist China and Central Asia's own decade-long experience with "integration" bode ill for an activist SCO. But a defensive SCO might dig in its heels against what Karimov described at the summit, with clear disapproval, as "the create controlled destabilization, to impose a system of behavior from without." In the wake of Georgia and Ukraine (and, to a lesser extent, Kyrgyzstan), the country that is most firmly associated in the minds of SCO elites with this sort of mischief is, of course, the United States.

The SCO is, in the end, only the tip of the iceberg, the visible expression of a conservative -- perhaps "conservationist" would be a better term -- endeavor that now stretches from Moscow to the east and the south. The post-Soviet status quo has begun to show obvious signs of strain over the last two years. The increased commitment to the SCO is a natural reaction, a huddling of harried elites who have seen the waters around them rise and are intent, now more than ever, on not rocking the boat.

See also:

Is It Time To Withdraw U.S. Troops From Central Asia?

Uzbekistan To Reassess Presence Of U.S. Air Base

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