Kazakhstan troops march in the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2016 military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is conducting its first joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan, just weeks after a suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.
The 2016 version of the SCO's Peace Mission exercise kicked off on Thursday at the Edelweiss training center near Lake Issyk-Kul. As is often the case, the scenario of the exercise involves an "anti-terror" operation with considerably heavier firepower than is usually employed against terrorists. Chinese helicopters, for example, practiced using air-to-air missiles.
"The need to conduct such exercises is dictated by modern realities," said Colonel Ruslan Mukambetov, the Kyrgyzstan officer commanding the exercises. "They have repeatedly proven their relevance and significance amid the current international situation, both in the SCO area of responsibility and in the world at large... In addition to its direct purpose - the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism - they also promote closer military cooperation between our countries’ armed forces."
There seems to be some discrepancies in the reporting of how many troops are involved: The official Chinese People's Liberation Army news site said that it was 1,100, while Mukambetov said it was 2,000. The Russian contingent is reportedly 500 strong, and the Chinese, about 300.
Investigators from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are working on the case of the Chinese embassy bombing in Bishkek, which includes "Russian traces," a senior Russian security official said.
"Work on identifying the individuals who took part in the terror act in Bishkek continues with the coordination of SCO special services," said Sergey Smirnov, deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), at an SCO meeting in Almaty on Tuesday. "In this work, Tajik, Chinese, and Russian traces are being pursued."
A suicide bomber, whom Kyrgyzstan authorities described as a Uighur holding a Tajikistan passport, attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in late August, killing himself and wounding three embassy employees. If the Uighur connection is confirmed, it would signify that the insurgency that the Uighurs -- a Turkic, Muslim people centered in China's northwest -- have been carrying out in China has expanded into Central Asia.
Smirnov's reference to "SCO special services" is unclear; he could be referring to special services of SCO member countries (which include China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) or organs of the SCO itself, like the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. The former is not newsworthy but the latter would be, suggesting a deepening role of the SCO in regional security. But for now it seems more likely that Smirnov was referring to SCO member states, and phrased it that way because he was at an SCO meeting.
Uzbekistan's new president has signaled that he will continue the country's isolationist foreign policy, promising to not join any military alliances and to not allow any foreign military bases in the country.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev was confirmed on Thursday as Uzbekistan's interim president, following the death of Islam Karimov, who had ruled the country since before the Soviet Union collapsed.
The same day, Mirziyoyev addressed parliament and laid out the broad strokes of the policies he intends to follow. In the military/foreign policy section of the speech there were no surprises, and he explicitly confirmed that he intended to to pursue the isolationism that Karimov developed over the period of his rule.
"The firm position of our country, as before, is to not join any military-political bloc, to not allow the deployment of military bases and objects of any other state on the territory of Uzbekistan, or the deployment of our soldiers outside the borders of the country," Mirziyoyev said.
The reference to the "military-political bloc" would preclude Uzbekistan rejoining the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which it left in 2012. Russia (which leads the group) has held on to hopes that Uzbekistan would rejoin; Uzbekistan's absence -- as the biggest country in Central Asia -- has hampered the CSTO's credibility in the region.
Mirziyoyev did, though, praise the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a group that served the interests of Uzbekistan. The SCO could be called a "military-political bloc," but its military component is secondary (or tertiary) and Uzbekistan has mostly not participated in SCO military activities, anyway.
An adviser to American presidential candidate Donald Trump has criticized United States policy in Central Asia as unnecessarily antagonistic, giving a rare glimpse into what a Trump presidency could mean for U.S. relations in the region.
The adviser, Carter Page, spoke Thursday in Moscow, and the main theme of the talk was that Russia and China have more successfully pursued their interests in Central Asia because they deal on the basis of “respect, equality and mutual benefit.” That, he argued, was one of the reasons for the flourishing of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia.
Page contrasted that with the American approach, which he said was characterized by books like "Chaos, Violence, Dynasty," and "Predatory Regimes." (He was referring, apparently, to academic monographs by Eric McGlinchey and Scott Radnitz.) This, Page argued, was evidence of "nakedly emotional approaches to news, often involving expressions of opinion and lacking verification of factual assertion" which typified "mainstream western discourse" on Central Asia.
The heads of state of the SCO member states at their 2016 summit in Tashkent. (photo: president.uz)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's summit concluded with few concrete results and plenty of reminders that the group's members have different visions for where the would-be non-Western bloc should be heading.
At the SCO's 15th anniversary summit in Tashkent, there were plenty of vague declarations about the desirability of greater economic cooperation and stepping up the fight against terrorism, but no new initiatives as to how that might be achieved.
The concrete results of the summit were so meager that Russian President Vladimir Putin was reduced to touting the new SCO Youth Card, "which would offer students discounts on travel, accommodation, and visits to museums and other cultural and historical sites in the member countries."
The much-discussed accession of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO progressed with the signing of a memorandum of obligation. "We hope that our partners will complete these steps as soon as possible, in time for our next meeting in Kazakhstan," Putin said in his speech. Putin also pushed for Iranian membership: "We think that now that the Iranian nuclear issue has been settled and the UN sanctions lifted, there are no obstacles in the way of a positive assessment of Tehran’s membership application."
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov greets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping upon the latter's arrival to Uzbekistan for the SCO summit. (photo: president.uz)
As the 15th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is set to start on Thursday in Tashkent, the group is poised to continue its growth, with two new members and five new partners. The group's purpose, however, remains unclear, with its diverse members apparently unable to agree on a consistent agenda.
The biggest headline after last year's summit was that India and Pakistan were invited to join the organization as full members, the first expansion since the group was founded. (The SCO currently consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
But on the eve of this year's summit, it's not clear what the timetable for their accession is. Their final accession should take place next year, Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said. "The process of accepting India and Pakistan into the SCO will enter the final stage and we expect that at the next summit in Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan will be finally admitted into the SCO ranks," he said.
A senior Indian diplomat suggested that the timetable may be looser and hinted that it is dependent on the desires of current member states. “We need to work out what we need to do … As far as India’s pace of accession at the SCO being a function of Russia, China and the four countries of Central Asia, I would say we see ourselves as following fairly flexible multilateralism. So we are quite happy to engage in multiple processes. We have been working with other members of SCO on several other fields,” said the diplomat, Sujata Mehta, at a press conference Wednesday.
Uzbekistan is reportedly closing its borders to all citizens from neighboring Central Asian countries in the most drastic measure adopted to date to enhance security for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit this month.
The plan was reported in local media on June 15 and partly confirmed by authorities in Tashkent.
“From June 15 to June 25, Uzbekistan will be halting the passage of people, transportation and cargo entering the country from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan,” KyrTAG news agency reported.
KyrTAG reported that an exception is being made for residents of the Kyrgyz enclave of Barak, which lies fully within Uzbek territory.
Closing borders has long become a customary practice in Uzbekistan ahead of major public events, such as the Nowruz holidays.
There had been rumors earlier this week that authorities in Tashkent would close the city off to all public transport from outside the capital from June 16 onward. Law enforcement officials denied that claim, however. (A report about the claimed transport ban on Nuz.uz has since been pulled).
With a major international summit approaching, authorities in Uzbekistan’s capital have taken to dismantling satellite dishes and tinted windows along a main city thoroughfare.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization heads of state summit scheduled for June 23-24 has sparked a frenzy of tidying up in Tashkent.
Over the past weekend, brigades of city employees went up and down Prospekt Kosmonavtov, exhorting local residents to take down balcony awnings, chimney stovepipes, satellites dishes or anything else that might offend the view of visiting dignitaries. In some cases, the city workers did the work themselves.
Prospekt Kosmonavtov, or Kosmonavtlar Prospekti to use its Uzbek name, is otherwise known as the “presidential road” and links President Islam Karimov’s city residence, Oqsaroy, to his country residence on the outskirts of the city.
Foreign-based news website eltuz.com featured a comment from one disgruntled resident, who identified herself as Sh. Kuryazova, as saying the embellishment works had disrupted her daily routine.
“I came home and switched on the TV and nothing appeared. Without warning, they had taken down the satellite dishes and cable TV connections. They were repaired recently after the heavy rains, and now the SCO has come along!” Kuryazova wrote.
An employee of an office along Prospekt Kosmonavtov told EurasiaNet.org that he and his fellow workers expect to be kept away from their jobs for the duration of the SCO summit.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. (photo: Kremlin)
The presidents of Russia and Uzbekistan met in Moscow with security high on the agenda. And while the two agreed on the need to cooperate to deal with the deteriorating situation Afghanistan, they publicly disagreed on how to do it.
President Islam Karimov's visit to Moscow was closely watched, given that he rarelyleaves the country and that his increasingly isolationist foreign policy has long been a thorn in Russia's side.
But in Karimov's meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, both sides agreed that they needed to work together in Afghanistan. "In our discussion we were primarily concerned about priority aspects of our bilateral relations, and first of all the situation taking shape in Central Asia," Karimov said in a joint appearance after the meeting. "Above all, this concerns, of course, the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan, [which] could create a serious threat of the instability spilling over to neighbouring countries and regions."
And Karimov argued that Russia needed to be part of the solution in Afghanistan. "Everyone knows geography, and knows that Central Asia’s ties with Russia go back centuries, if not millennia. We clearly feel Russia’s interest in Central Asia, and we agree with this," he said.
But the two differed on strategy. In particular, while Putin praised the importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (and has repeatedly called for it to play a bigger role in Afghanistan), Karimov, speaking after him, pointedly argued that the SCO should not be involved in Afghanistan:
In an apparent attempt to assuage Russian concerns, Chinese defense officials have clarified their intentions to create a military bloc along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. They emphasize that it is not to be a "Central Asian NATO" and would "complement" the efforts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia is a member, rather than exclude Moscow.
The initiative in question was announced during a visit by General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during a visit to Kabul last month. Details have been scant, but the initiative was a surprising one given China's traditional deference to Russia in Central Asia security affairs. And Russian media have accused their Western counterparts of deliberately misconstruing the initiative in an effort to sow discord between the two giant neighbors.
"Western media outlets branded the suggestion as a 'Central Asian NATO' claiming to threaten Russia’s influence in the region," wrote the Russian state news agency Sputnik wrote.