As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expresses a desire to place a "special focus" on Central Asia, Russia is emphasizing its own military links to the region in a bid to rebuff any additional overtures to countries Moscow sees as firmly within its own sphere of influence.
The announcement at the June 28-29 summit in Istanbul that the 26-member security collective intends to "put special focus on engaging with our [p]artners in the strategically important regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia" has set off a stream of commentary from Moscow on how best to respond. Currently, NATO has limited its official statements on the planned engagement to the appointment of two liaison officers for both regions and a special staff representative to facilitate cooperation.
At a July 1 press conference in Moscow, Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Fund, a political consulting firm, declared that only Russia could guarantee security in the Central Asia and the Caucasus. "It is the [Commonwealth of Independent States], rather than NATO, member-nations that provide tangible guarantees of security on the border of this vast area," Interfax reported Pavlovsky as saying. "A country that expects to have its problems resolved by acceding to NATO will be disappointed."
Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the Russian Duma's CIS affairs committee, echoed that message, noting that the difficulties in Iraq indicated how ill-equipped NATO member countries were for fighting terrorism a key objective of the June 17 summit in Tashkent of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the regional security collective that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
But other Duma members are advocating a subtler tactic in discouraging Central Asia's interest in partnership with the West.
In a June 29 article in Izvestia, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma's international affairs committee, argued that Russia should use its influence in the region to encourage democracy and show local governments that the Kremlin does not intend to re-impose Soviet-style military and economic dominance on the region.
"Russian clout with domestic political processes . . . should be used to promote the development of truly democratic statehood in these countries," wrote Kosachev. "In this case, they will cease viewing Russia's dominance on the post-Soviet territory as a threat. Instead, they will regard Russia as a guarantor of stability and the irreversibility of democratic processes."
"It is an unnatural situation when Russia's clout with some countries is approaching zero," Kosachev went on to say.
For now, though, Russia appears to be relying on one its traditional bargaining chips -- military assistance -- to counter the appeal of US partnership.
A strategic alliance agreement signed with Uzbekistan on June 17 during a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization foresees a regional security system based on cooperation between the Uzbek and Russian ministries of defense, foreign affairs, interior affairs, and security councils. Russia has also recently tightened its ties to Tajikistan, with a June 4 agreement on a land lease that would reportedly give Russia indefinite access, fee-free, to a military base outside of the Tajik capital of Dushanbe.
While such agreements constitute significant successes in Russia's struggle for influence in the region, a reported deal between energy-rich Kazakhstan and a UK military firm could pose a considerable setback.
According to a June 15 article in the Russian newspaper Kommersant Daily, BAE Systems, Europe's largest military contractor, has negotiated a $1 billion deal to upgrade Kazakhstan's air defense systems. The deal was a slap in the face to Moscow, which had warned Kazakhstan that inviting Western military firms to upgrade its air defense systems could compromise its obligations under the Commonwealth of Independent States treaty. The two countries have had an air-defense partnership in place since 1995.
Kazakhstani Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbayev told the online Russian Expert Review that Kazakhstani contacts with the BAE were "misunderstood," but some Western analysts maintain that the deal sends a clear signal that Kazakhstan remains unconvinced by the Kremlin's pitches for closer military cooperation.
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have all avoided exclusive military or economic partnerships, preferring instead to curry favor with both the US and Russia, as well as China. After signing the strategic partnership agreement with Russia, for example, Uzbek President Islam Karimov avoided the Istanbul NATO summit, despite having reportedly pushed for extended US military cooperation earlier this year. Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kyrgyzstani President Askar Akayev were the only leaders from Central Asia's former Soviet republics to attend the conference.
Russian President Vladimir Putin avoided the summit, a decision taken as a sign of displeasure at the military alliance's inroads into formerly Soviet-held territory that borders Russia, particularly the Baltics. "We are very well aware that NATO no longer poses a threat to Russia and vice-versa. We have normal, partner-like relations with NATO, but the fact is that there is military activity taking place just beyond the borders of the Russian Federation," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters after a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at the Istanbul summit.
In the meantime, Russia is emphasizing a series of planned military exercises in Central Asia to underline assertions that regional concerns about terrorism are best solved within a CIS or SCO framework. The "Frontier-2004" exercises, to be held in July in Kyrgyzstan, will involve Kyrgyzstani, Kazakhstani and Tajik troops in exercises with units from Russia's 31st paratrooper brigade, 3rd special forces brigade and the 12th special brigade of Russian military intelligence, according to Russian media reports. Russia and Uzbekistan have also agreed to hold major joint war games in southern Uzbekistan later this year, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced on June 18.
The games follow on the announcement of plans to open an SCO anti-terrorism center in Tashkent, as well as a think tank and information exchange center for member states. So far, Western analysts have downplayed the potential effectiveness of this center, referring to past bungled attempts by Moscow at building Eurasia-wide initiatives.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.