World leaders are streaming into Astana for the 10th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization today and tomorrow. Its identity is still evolving -- it's part military alliance, part regional development bank, part geopolitical talk shop -- but it must be doing something right, because other countries keep wanting to join. Its military function -- which a few years ago was the main focus of the organization -- has declined relatively in importance as Russia, the SCO member most interested in defense cooperation, has shifted its energies to building up the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And the SCO is instead increasing its economic activities, a reflection of China's desire to get a greater foothold in Central Asia.
So where is the organization heading? I asked Alexander Cooley, who follows the SCO closely, about what he expects from the summit.
Q. What will you be looking for out of the summit? What should we be looking for to get ideas about where the SCO is going?
A. Beyond broad platitudes about friendship and enduring "good neighborliness," I would be interested in seeing what specific measures they announce on the non-security side of things, especially the economic agenda. This has been Beijing's priority for a couple of years now, but it has not made much headway. Also, look for a possible announcement of infrastructure projects that will be funded by the SCO's "Anti-Crisis Fund." With a pledge to give up to $10 billion, this could serve as the region's main source of foreign developmental investment and will further accelerate the re-orientation of the region's infrastructure towards China. I would also be interested in whether the group releases a statement about the Middle East uprisings. At the last Astana Summit in 2005 the group was fixated on denouncing the Colored Revolutions and backing the Uzbek government in the wake of Andijan.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization may not have done much last summer when ethnic violence broke out in Kyrgyzstan, but it won't stand idly by again, the group's head says. Nikolai Bordyuzha, the CSTO's secretary general, said the group is monitoring the situation, according to Regnum.ru:
"We are monitoring the situation in Kyrgyzstan, we know that there are elements of aggravation," - he said.
However, according to Bordyuzha, the Kyrgyz government to take proactive measures, including the transfer of additional units. "If you will continue worsening, the Council of CSTO will take appropriate action. We are ready for any action and have adequate capacity," - said Bordyuzha.
But Kyrgyzstan -- lately quite sensitive about foreigners opining about their ethnic troubles -- has reacted angrily to the CSTO's statement. According to a different Regnum story, Bishkek's ombudsman, Tursunbek Akun, said "neither the CSTO nor any other organization has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of Kyrgyzstan." And he said that the situation, anyway, was different now than it was last summer, when the government and its security forces were weak because of the recent change in government.
The CSTO has been lately talking up its willingness to intervene, saying also that just because it didn't get involved last year in Kyrgyzstan doesn't mean it wouldn't do so in Nagorno Karabakh if fighting broke out there. Does this mark the era of a new, more assertive CSTO? It'll be interesting to watch...
Kazakhstan's proposed deployment of a handful of officers to Afghanistan has hit a snag; the country's upper house in the parliament has rejected the bill to send the troops, a couple of weeks after the lower house approved it.
RT quotes a couple of parliament members who suggested public opinion was part of the reason:
Astana should not get involved in the military activities in Afghanistan, said Svetlana Dzhalmagambetova, a deputy of the upper house. “The Senate has taken a right decision not to ratify the bill on sending troops,” Interfax quoted her as saying. Deputies had heated discussions in the parliament’s committees, the deputy said.
Now that the US is considering withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, it would be unacceptable for Astana to send servicemen after refraining for so long, Dzhalmagambetova noted. The move would tarnish the country’s reputation as a peaceful state, she believes.
Another senator, Tasbay Simambaev, said during the meeting that Kazakhstan had all the grounds to reject the ratification. The country should maintain a balanced foreign policy and neutral position, he stressed. Public opinion was also against the agreement with NATO, he said.
But Kazakhstan's parliament is generally regarded as a mere rubber stamp; all of its members are from the party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. So there's likely something more behind it. I asked my EurasiaNet colleague Joanna Lillis for her take on the politics of the issue, and she had several theories:
1. it's pure political theater, meant to make it appear as if the parliament does actually have a say. In this case the bill might be reworked slightly and would pass again.
Rakhat Aliyev, the scandal-prone former son-in-law of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has stirred up trouble in his homeland and in Europe. Now, he’s tried to make waves in Washington. But he’s found that a spin war in the United States can quickly turn into a quagmire.
Could Turkey be heading towards membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization? China, at least, seems enthusiastic about it, according to a report in the Associated Press of Pakistan:
“China is very positive for Turkey to become a SCO dialogue partner. However, whether it become dialogue partner it would depend on the consensus of the member states of the SCO”, said Cheng Guoping, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister...
“Turkey is a friendly country of China and in terms of economic, political, security and people-to-people cultural exchanges and cooperation we have very smooth cooperation”, Cheng observed.
The SCO is an open organization as defined in its charter, he said, noting that it is willing to cooperate with “organizations and nations that hold the same opinions as us”.
How, exactly, China imagines that Turkey has "the same opinions" as China is not clear, but that's an interesting statement, in the context. Last year the two countries carried out two rounds of military exercises, which raised some eyebrows in Washington.
Turkey reportedly had some interest in SCO cooperation a few years ago, but I haven't been able to find any Turkish official commentary on this, or analysis (if there is some out there, I'd love to hear about it).
The alleged bomb from an Abkhazia-originated Russian terror plot.
Georgia's Interior Ministry says it stopped a terror plot, hatched by Russian security forces in South Ossetia, to set off a bomb in Tbilisi's NATO liaison office. According to their account, it doesn't seem that NATO was a target per se, but that the suspect, one Badri Gogiashvili, was told to bomb whatever international building he could find:
According to the testimony of Gogiashvili, he was ordered by Aleksei Sokolov, deputy head of Russian FSB Border Troops stationed in Akhalgori, Vladimer Pukhaev, head of Akhalgori Militia Division, and Vova Kibilov, employee of Akhalgori Militia, to find the buildings in Tbilisi with flags of either European Union, United States, or any international organization. From the data collected by Badri Gogiashvili, the mentioned persons chose the building where NATO Liaison Office is located. They ordered Badri Gogiashvili to detonate the bomb near the NATO Liaison Office Gogiashvili was promised USD 2000 for this terrorist act.
South Ossetian officials, meanwhile, deny the claim and say that the alleged ringleader Pukhaev doesn't even exist. Vyacheslav Sedov, head of the South Ossetian government press service, says the allegations are an attempt to involve NATO in the ongoing conflict between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali:
A few weeks ago there was some back and forth between Armenians and Azerbaijanis about whether Russia would come to Armenia's defense in the case of a war over Nagorno Karabakh. Well, now a top Russian general has weighed in, and he sounds pretty certain that Russia would get involved. General Andrei Tretyak, the Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the Defense Ministry, discussed the Russian military's future plans with some analysts, and this is from Dmitry Gorenburg's account:
In a discussion on the situation in Karabakh, General Tretyak agreed with a participant’s assessment that the possibility of conflict in that region is high, but argued that it is gradually decreasing as a result of Russian efforts to reduce tension in the region. He disagreed with the suggestion that Russia’s relationship with Armenia is eroding and made clear that Russia will carry out its promises to that country. No one should see Russia’s refusal to intervene in Kyrgyzstan last summer as a precedent for Karabakh, as that was a very different situation.
Hmm, that can't make too many folks in Baku feel too confident. Tretyak also weighed in on Central Asia, and suggested that the Collective Security Treaty Organization could help fill the security vacuum that will be created by the U.S. leaving Afghanistan. And he seems to acknowledge that the CSTO kind of dropped the ball on Kyrgyzstan last year, when it did nothing to stop the pogroms that took place there in what many saw as the first big test of the collective security group:
He also felt that what he saw as the inevitable US withdrawal from the region will have a negative effect on stability.
Georgia appears to be planning to add at least 625 additional soldiers to the 925 it already has in Afghanistan, according to a statement from the White House. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili yesterday in Rome, and according to the official White House account of the meeting, "The Vice President expressed his appreciation to President Saakashvili for Georgia's significant new contribution of forces to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which will make Georgia the largest non-NATO contributor to ISAF."
Civil.ge does the math, and finds that the top current non-NATO contributor is Australia, with 1,550 troops. So that presumably means that Georgia is planning to top that:
It means that Georgia, which currently has 925 soldiers in Afghanistan, most of them stationed in Helmand province, has to send additional more than 625 servicemen to exceed Australian troop number and to become the largest non-NATO contributor to the ISAF mission.
There's really not much to be said about Saakashvili's devotion to the West and its security organizations that hasn't already been said. But in a terrific analysis of the U.S.-Russia reset in The Nation, Stephen Cohen provides some useful context. In particular, he notes the blatant hypocrisy in Biden and Saakashvili's respective description of the "sphere of influence" in Georgia:
Georgia may have made procuring American weapons one of its top military priorities, but it's also taking matters into its own hands. During last week's military parade the country unveiled a new, homegrown armored personnel carrier, called Didgori after a famous 12th-century Georgian military victory over the Seljuk Turks.
According to the report below from Rustavi 2 (with English subtitles) the APC features night vision, remote controlled weapons and improved armor over its Russian/Soviet predecessors. It is apparently made at Georgia's Plant 31, which used to make Su-25 fighter jets but which is now dedicated to ground vehicles. They are lightly armed but fast, and are intended for reconnaissance and special operations. The Georgian armed forces now have 30, and there is the possibility they'll be made for export, as well. And it already has its own Wikipedia page.
"The biggest advantage is that it is Georgian, made in Georgia, and we are proud of it and of the name it has," said one of the soldiers interviewed, Alexander Gorgodze.
There is rarely good news about Tajikistan's military, but if it is possible to actually lower one's opinion of the country's armed forces, the newest International Crisis Group report will do it. The report (pdf), Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats, is grim reading, painting a picture of a government in Dushanbe that is alternately hapless and venal in its attempts to stamp out the insurgency that has been threatening the country. One figure that sticks out: the country's elite counterterror forces has dwindled to a mere 32 soldiers, and Western governments are so mistrustful of the government in Dushanbe that they're reluctant to help.
Rampant corruption means that the military is understaffed and undertrained:
On paper Tajikistan has 7,300 soldiers and 7,500 paramilitaries, including 1,200 National Guard. Corruption in the military is, however, a major business, an observer remarked, and only a small fraction could probably be fielded at any one moment. A conscript who wants to stay at home rather than serve with his unit has to pay his commander about $100 a month, according to the relative of a soldier who was doing this. A medical discharge would cost $3,500, $500 of which is paid to the doctor who draws up the necessary papers. Those who stay in uniform often lack serious training. There are frequent claims that livefire exercises in many units are a fiction. Relatives of a soldier serving in a security unit said he is often told to sign a form saying he expended a certain number of bullets, then returns to barracks without using his weapon. Officers allegedly pocket the unused bullets for resale.