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Russia: CIS Military-Alliance Upgrade Plan Faces Numerous Obstacles

Yesterday, the six members of the CIS Collective-Security Treaty agreed to turn their 10-year-old alliance into a formal organization but postponed talks on a joint military command under Russian control. The decision was made at a summit in Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the leaders of Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. What prompted the upgrade, and what are the organization's prospects, given the alliance's lackluster first decade?

Prague, 15 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The six members of the CIS Collective-Security Treaty gathered in Moscow yesterday to breathe new life into their decade-old alliance. Leaders from Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan agreed to turn the largely symbolic alliance into a formal organization.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told his counterparts the treaty needs to change to meet new threats such as terrorism.

"Today, when the geopolitical situation is changing rapidly, the task in front of us is to further strengthen the [CIS Collective-Security] Treaty and to adapt its mechanisms to tackle the new, nontraditional challenges and threats that all of our countries are facing," Putin said.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka hailed the upgrade, saying the collective-security organization will be a powerful military grouping comparable to NATO.

The alliance was originally set up to foster security cooperation between Russia and some of the newly independent states following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Signatories pledged to hold consultations in the event of a threat emerging to one or several member states, and promised mutual aid in the event of an attack. But critics say it failed to deliver much in the way of security and several of the original signatories -- Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan -- pulled out in 1999.

Michael Sheehan, director of the Scottish Centre for International Security, said the states share some common interests, such as maintaining border security and containing Islamic fundamentalism. But there's no reason to think that this will translate into effective action in the future.

"A lot of these common interests have existed for 10 years, but it hasn't been enough to energize the treaty system," Sheehan said.

So why the upgrade? Analysts say Moscow clearly wants to reassert its influence in selected states once part of the Soviet Union, particularly in Central Asia. They say Putin also wants to soothe conservatives at home, upset at the closer ties Russia is forging with NATO and at the U.S.-led troops now stationed in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Sergei Blagov, a Moscow-based analyst of CIS affairs, notes another motive: to strengthen Russia's bargaining position ahead of its summits with the U.S. and NATO later this month.

"Right now, the Russian negotiating position with the U.S. on strategic security, on strategic-arms reduction agreements, is quite weak. And it's not impossible that by holding two summits in two days -- the Eurasian Economic Cooperation on 13 May and the Collective-Security Treaty on 14 May -- Moscow was trying to give a little bit of a boost to its negotiating position versus the West," Blagov said.

Still, yesterday's meeting fell short in one key respect, suggesting some of Russia's partners in the treaty feel uneasy about any efforts to reassert its influence. Members failed to agree on a joint military command under Russian control, deciding to put off talks until later this year.

There are other obstacles to making the organization a success. Alex Vatanka is editor of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS." He said Russia's co-signatories to the treaty are the weakest CIS countries that, in the past, have looked to Russia for security for lack of more powerful friends elsewhere. But with Central Asia playing an increasingly important role in U.S. foreign policy, those Central Asian countries don't want to risk being reabsorbed under Russian influence.

"If you look at it from the point of view of Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan -- weak states [dependent] on Russia -- sure. But are they going to gamble [and] throw away the potential benefits available to them by sticking with the U.S.?," Vatanka said.

Vatanka cast more doubt on the success of the project by noting that Russia's campaign against separatists in Chechnya is still simmering, despite Moscow's claims that the war is over.

"The Russians can't even successfully complete their mission in Chechnya. What chance do they have to go into the mountainous regions of southern Uzbekistan and western Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan and pretend as if they can solve the issue of radical Islamists in that region? They can't even fix it in Chechnya," Vatanka said.

Nevertheless, the plan poses some key questions for NATO, says Vladimir Socor, an analyst at the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation. He argues that it should have been addressed while NATO was still discussing how to give Russia a bigger say in its affairs. But that deal is now as good as inked, after NATO foreign ministers agreed yesterday to set up a NATO-Russia Council where all 20 members will sit as equal partners in a number of areas.

Socor said: "The question for NATO is just who will be sitting at the table of NATO at 20 in the seat reserved for Russia? Will it be Russia as a normal country, a normal partner, or will it be Russia as the leader of a newly created political-military bloc based on the Soviet past?"

He said this is not what NATO bargained for and should be addressed before the new agreement is signed at a summit in Rome on 28 May.