The Shanghai Cooperation Organization held its annual military exercises last week in Kazakhstan, and from what we can tell from the official statements about the exercise, it represented a continuation of the trend toward a lessening of the organization's military importance.
The scenario of the exercise, which was held in Shymkent, was a pretty typical one, reports China Radio International:
The drill stimulates a situation where terrorists enter Kazakhstan by helicopters and automobiles, hijack hostages in a bordering village and attempt to conduct terrorist activities.
The mission is for counter forces from SCO member countries to crack down on the terrorist group and rescue hostages through both ground and aerial operations.
MiG-29 fighters forced a plane which had illegally infiltrated Kazakhstan's air space to land. Then, they showed witnesses at attempt to seize a reinforced checkpoint. And then, airborne forces neutralized a group of terrorists. In addition, the special forces demonstrated the storming of a house in which criminals held hostages. On the order to release the hostages, the terrorists responded with fire.
Armed forces and armored personnel carriers went to the site of battle. Aviation supported the ground attack. At the same time wounded security forces were evacuated. The special forces used flash-bang grenades. They freed the hostages and captured the hostages as they tried to escape.
Nurtay Abykayev, the chairman of Kazakhstan's security council, said "Of course the scenario is possible. A terrorist is a terrorist. He can be armed with any weapon, so we need to work comprehensively."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev sign an agreement on Turkey's accession to dialogue partner status in the SCO. (photo: MFA of Turkey)
Turkey has formally become a "dialogue partner" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a step with unclear practical consequences but substantial symbolic import. Turkey is the first NATO member with any sort of formal relationship with the SCO, which is often represented as an Eastern "anti-NATO." All the cliches about Turkey being "caught between East and West" -- here they are, codified in agreements with political-military blocs.
During the signing ceremony in Almaty on Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu used some lofty rhetoric about his country's new partners, saying that Turkey "shares the same fate" as SCO member states: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. From Hurriyet Daily News:
“Now we declare that Turkey also shares the same fate as Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries.
We are thankful for being accepted as a member of this family,” Davutoğlu said. “This is only a start.
Maybe [it only seems like] a complementation of a process but [in fact] it is the start of a long way we will walk together hand by hand. This is our point of view on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and we will move in this direction,” he continued.
Davutoglu didn't address the relationship between Turkey's NATO membership and SCO partnership, but Itar-Tass asked SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev to comment on it and he basically said, we don't know:
Russian troops participating in the 2012 Peace Mission SCO exercises in Tajikistan
Over the last few years, two large multilateral security organizations that have emerged in Central Asia: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), dominated by China, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), dominated by Russia. For the most part, these two groups have looked past one another, staking out complementary, rather than competing, mandates, and including many of the same members (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan all belong to both). But there is still under-the-surface competition between the two groups.
As the new International Crisis Group report, China's Central Asian Problem, notes, China's ambitious economic moves into Central Asia have not been matched by political or military efforts of the same scope. That's in part because the Russian influence in Central Asia's security structures remains so strong that China is reluctant to try to compete. The SCO, China's main tool for engaging in Central Asian security, has moved away from joint military training -- its 2012 exercise was the smallest since 2003 -- and more toward getting Central Asia to crack down on Uyghur exile groups. The CSTO, meanwhile, claims to be building up a joint military structure, including rapid reaction forces.
Russia is "increasingly distrustful" of the SCO, the ICG writes:
For the past few years, representatives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have generally shied away from talk that the group is a competitor for the West, trying to play down its original inception as a "NATO of the East." But it sounds like the youth are talking a little more loosely and ambitiously. At an "SCO Youth Forum" in Barnaul, Russia, the organization's representatives spoke bluntly about challenging the West, taking control of the Internet and -- perhaps most audaciously -- taking on Eurovision.
The modest proposal on the internet came from Denis Tyurin, the director of the SCO's "Business Club":
"In the Russian and international expert community there are plenty of questions about the current structure of the management of the internet. For the most part, a situation persists in which the 'switch' of global information networks is located in the US. Regardless of the efforts of the international community to give that system of management more balance, the Americans don't intend to give up the levers of control," Tyurin said.
The members of the SCO can exert influence on these processes. "Many of the countries in the SCO have compatible approaches to this problem," Tyurin noted. "The SCO, acting as an example for other international organizations, could become a prototype of a global system of management of the internet."
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a "vehicle for human rights violations," according to a report published Monday by the International Federation for Human Rights. The report, which was put together with the help of local human rights organizations in all six SCO member countries (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), is a follow up to an earlier paper by a group affiliated with FIDH, Human RIghts in China. This one focuses on how legislation on counterterrorism is influenced by China and Russia via the SCO:
The incorporation of SCO doctrines into member state domestic law extends China and Russia’s control over regional counter-terrorism policies and practices beyond their own national boundaries, by virtue of their status as dominant members of the SCO. This has grave implications for the protection of human rights in Central Asia. On 6 and 7 June 2012, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Beijing, member states amended an agreement on mechanisms for responding collectively to “events that jeopardise regional peace, security and stability”.
“The recent agreement in Beijing reflects the shared fear among SCO governments of the kind of popular uprisings still unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, said Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President. “The security doctrines of the SCO will add potency to the already expansive and unchecked state power that is often used and abused to criminalize dissent and human rights defenders”, she added.
Uzbekistan has adopted a law banning foreign military bases on its territory, ending feverish speculation that a rapprochement with the United States – and recent distancing from Moscow – was the precursor to Tashkent welcoming the US military back in.
Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy doctrine, passed by the lower house of parliament on August 2, specifically prohibits foreign military bases from operating on its territory, the government-run Uzdaily.com website reported.
Speculation that President Islam Karimov was preparing to welcome the US military had been fed by Washington’s courting of Uzbekistan ahead of the drawdown of troops from neighboring Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is a key cog on the Northern Distribution Network supply route into and out of Afghanistan, and the US operated a military base in the country until 2005, when Tashkent ejected it following Washington's criticism of the shooting of protestors in Andijan.
In June, Tashkent’s abrupt suspension of its membership in the Russia-led regional Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) also fed the rumor mill.
Kazakhstan military officers observe the SCO drills, after taking the scenic route to northern Tajikistan.
The annual military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization wrappied up today in northern Tajikistan, with member militaries practicing "air-to-ground fire attack, joint encirclement and suppression, charging into depth for pursuit and annihilation and vertical interception and annihilation" against the usual "terrorist" threat.
Taking part were about 2,000 soldiers and 500 military vehicles and airplanes from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. That's all the SCO countries except Uzbekistan, which -- in keeping with its standard practice -- didn't participate. But Uzbekistan seemed to go a bit further this year, and even forbade Kazakhstan's troops and equipment from transiting through its territory en route to Tajikistan, according to Kazakhstan's defense attache in Tajikistan, Serik Zhumadilov:
"The Uzbek authorities have not allowed Kazakhstan's military equipment to pass through Uzbekistan to participate in the exercises. Military equipment and personnel of the armed forces of Kazakhstan, which are involved in anti-terror exercises have been delivered to Tajikistan, bypassing Uzbekistan through Kyrgyz territory."
Uzbekistan, recall, has also declined to participate in various activities of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a similar political-military bloc. It's also bowed out of Western-led regional initiatives, like the "Istanbul Process" for Afghanistan. And given that Uzbekistan sees Kazakhstan as a rival, it's maybe not too surprising that they don't want the Kazakhstan military marching through their territory.
The twelfth summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization took place this week in Beijing, and as usual, it's hard to tell what happened. Among the more obvious results: the organization admitted Afghanistan as an observer country and Turkey as a dialogue partner, as expected. The SCO rejected outside military involvement in Syria. And while no movement was made in upgrading the status of observer countries India and Pakistan, both countries were explicit about their desires to become full members. Presidents of all six SCO member countries (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) attended, as did the presidents of Afghanistan, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. The organization appointed a new secretary general, a former governor of the Irkutsk region. (The new head, Dmitry Mezentsev, "attempted to run for the Russian presidency during the March elections, but was rejected because there were too many invalid signatures among those he submitted to register as a candidate," RIA Novosti notes.)
But the question of what the SCO actually does remains difficult to answer. The group pledged to be more active in Afghanistan, and focused on "regional security," while emphasizing that it is not a military alliance like NATO. According to a report from Xinhua:
Foreign Ministers of the SCO member states, in Beijing
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is strengthening its ties with two countries aligned to the West, Turkey and Afghanistan. The foreign ministers of the SCO states met last week in Beijing, in advance of next month's summit there, and apparently one of the decisions made was to admit U.S.-occupied Afghanistan as an observer country, and NATO member Turkey as a dialogue partner.
The Voice of Russia quotes political analyst Stanislav Tarasov saying that the move with Turkey is a "real breakthrough":
"The situation around Turkey is unique. Turkey has been sticking to pro-Western policies. It has been trying to join the EU for ten years but it was in vain so now it has to develop a new scenario of drifting to the East, which implies changes in Turkey’s foreign policy."
That ignores certain moves Turkey has made to strengthen its cooperation with NATO, notably its decision to host NATO missile defense radar. That is certainly a bigger commitment than being a dialogue partner in the SCO. Still, it's an intriguing move, and expect Turkophobes in the West to use this against Ankara.
As for Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai just gave an interview to Russian media, and though the subject of the SCO didn't come up, Karzai framed Afghanistan's security in terms that include a lot of the countries in the SCO (either as members or observers):
“Security is an issue that is not related to us alone… Had it been an Afghan issue, the Americans would have never come here – as they didn’t before September 11 ,” Karzai said, speaking to journalists from RIA Novosti, the Rossiya24 and Russia Today television channels in Kabul.
The two big post-Soviet military blocs, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, have announced their respective plans for large-scale exercises this year. The CSTO's will take place in September in Armenia, while the SCO's will happen in Tajikistan in June.
Last September's CSTO exercises were a pretty big deal, involving 24,000 troops and taking place amid a concerted Kremlin effort to gin up the threat from Afghanistan, prompting a lot of observers to speculate that Moscow was trying to use the CSTO as a means of exerting a heavier hand in Central Asia. This year's exercises were still months away, and there are few details available about them, so it's hard to compare yet. But the choice of location in Armenia is curious, given that last year so much of the rhetoric justifying the organization's existence related to Afghanistan. So now is the shift toward the Caucasus, or is it just Armenia's turn?
Meanwhile, the choice of Tajikistan for the SCO exercise, Peace Mission 2012, has prompted one dropout already: Uzbekistan won't be taking part in the exercise, Regnum reports (in Russian):
"During the exercises, a special anti-terror operation in a mountainous area will be worked on. New methods will be used to detect, block and destroy mock outlawed armed formations that have captured a mountain village, according to the legend," the [Tajikistan Ministry of Defense] press centre said.
One Tajikistan member of parliament interviewed by Regnum had harsh words for Uzbekistan's decision: