(CNSNews.com) – The deepening rift between Russia and the West over the invasion of Georgia may spur a resurgent Moscow to seek strengthened ties with other countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, with ramifications for U.S. security interests in the region.
With Georgia and Ukraine pulling increasingly westward, pressure will grow on remaining post-Soviet states – the “stans” of Central Asia and Georgia’s Caucasian neighbors of Armenia and Azerbaijan – to make their alignment clear.
First signs could be seen as early as next week, when Tajikistan hosts the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security body grouping Russia, China and four Central Asian republics. (Iran, one of four observer countries, recently requested full membership status, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to attend the summit in Dushanbe.)
The SCO’s stated aims are to fight “terrorism, extremism and separatism,” but Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership prodded it towards challenging U.S. military basing rights in Central Asia.
A 2005 summit urged the U.S. to set a timetable for withdrawing its troops from the region, and SCO member Uzbekistan subsequently expelled the U.S. from a base, strategically located near that country’s border with Afghanistan.
Since then, a U.S. airbase at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, established in the aftermath of 9/11, has been a major route for troops and supplies going to Afghanistan.
Some analysts believe Kyrgyzstan is likely to find itself under growing pressure in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia conflict, to side more demonstratively with Russia, which in 2003 also opened a military base in Kyrgyzstan – at Kant, just 20 miles from Manas.
Kyrgyzstan currently holds the rotating presidency of another Russia-led regional organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and will host the CIS’ annual summit in October in its capital, Bishkek.
That summit, too, could be dominated by events in the Caucasus and their fallout. Georgia pulled out of the CIS to protest Russia’s military intervention, which followed a Georgian offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Leaders’ summits of bodies like the CIS and SCO traditionally end with a pre-drafted joint statement dealing with a range of issues and current concerns, and Russia may use the opportunity to seek support for its actions in Georgia.
Like most other CIS states, the Kyrgyz government has been relatively muted on the crisis, although pro-Moscow lawmakers paid a solidarity visit to South Ossetia and pro-Russia media have been presenting a picture of the conflict sympathetic to Russia.
In contrast, the day after Georgia announced it was pulling out of the CIS, a human rights group in Kyrgyzstan, Citizens Against Corruption, issued a statement praising the decision and calling on Kyrgyzstan to follow Georgia’s lead and so “and become a truly legal, independent and democratic state.”
Ferghana, a regional news agency focusing on Central Asia, said in an analysis that Kyrgyzstan was finding it hard to balance between the U.S. and Russia as relations between those two countries deteriorated.
Erica Marat, a research fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) and Silk Road Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, noted that when the Georgian crisis erupted, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev went on vacation, a move she said reflected “anxiety about taking sides before the conflict is resolved.”
Nurshat Ababakirov, a Bishkek-based writer, said Wednesday that Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS may put pressure on Kyrgyzstan to shift from its usual practice of maneuvering between Russia and the U.S.
“Russia’s military victory in the conflict, vividly highlighted in the mostly pro-Russian media outlets in Kyrgyzstan, will likely push … Bakiyev’s position a good deal closer to that of Moscow,” he wrote in the publication CACI Analyst.
Bakiyev was elected in 2005, several months after his predecessor was ousted in a popular revolt dubbed the “tulip revolution.” The transition was initially regarded as a triumph for democracy – like those in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004 – but Bakiyev was later accused of breaking election promises. He also tilted Kyrgyzstan increasingly towards Moscow.
The Kyrgyz news agency 24.kg asked several local analysts whether they thought their country could become a flashpoint in a Russia-U.S. dispute.
Felix Kulov, a former prime minister and head of a key opposition party, said he doubted the presence of American and Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan would become a bone of contention.
Yury Pogrebnyak, a military expert, said the country should identify its position clearly by making either the U.S. or Russia withdraw its forces.
Political scientist Marat Kazakbaev said Kyrgyzstan viewed Russia as its strategic partner and main political ally. “Kyrgyzstan will never dare for complete integration with the West, being a member of SCO and CSTO.”
CSTO refers to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led organization that includes some but not all CIS members, and whose charter says aggression against one member will be viewed as aggression against all. Russia’s military forces are deployed at Kant under a CSTO agreement.
Dr. Kirill Nourzhanov, a specialist in Central Asia at the Australian National University, said Friday he doubted the Caucasus crisis would feature prominently at the CIS summit in October.
“If anything, [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev will attempt to reassure his interlocutors that their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom of choice are not in jeopardy,” he said.
Nourzhanov said the Kremlin had in recent years “given up on the CIS as an instrument of integration or even Russian influence.”
“The best it can hope for is the condemnation of [Georgian President Mikhail] Saakashvili’s rash and precipitate act by the attending parties, but not the approbation of the ensuing Russian action in Georgia.”
Nourzhanov also noted that “Georgia has refrained from any meaningful participation in the CIS since 2003, so its de jure departure is not regarded as a dramatic and unexpected blow by other member-states.”
As for any concerns about the future of the Manas base, Nourzhanov suggested that it would be Russia that would have to worry about keeping its own base, in Kant.
“In the wake of the events in Georgia, [CSTO countries in Central Asia] would be extremely skeptical towards Russian-led initiatives within the CSTO framework such as joint rapid deployment forces and peacekeeper units.”
In the Caucasus
In Georgia’s neighborhood, rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan have both been affected by the conflict. Landlocked Armenia gets much of its trade through Georgia’s Black Sea ports, while Azeri oil and gas flow westward through pipelines traversing Georgia.
Both are members of the CIS and Armenia – a Russia ally – is also a member of the CSTO.
Some analysts expect that Azerbaijan – which has cooperated with NATO since 1992 although without applying for membership – may as a result of the Russia-Georgia war work more closely with Moscow, due to concerns about security for its oil and gas exports.
Azerbaijan is a member of yet another of the patchwork of regional groupings that emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. GUAM comprises Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova.
The GUAM members have offered mutual supportive as members struggle with separatism – South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia; Transdniestria in Moldova; and Nagarno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
According to Hudson Institute senior fellow Richard Weitz, GUAM has long been seen in some quarters as an anti-Russia bloc, and its members “generally have shown more interest than other CIS members in developing ties with Euro-Atlantic institutions such as NATO and the E.U.”
Weitz said Russia may try to lure Moldova, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, into leaving the grouping. Uzbekistan was a member of what was then called GUUAM, but withdrew in 2005.
Regional organizations in Eurasia include:
Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO):
- Members: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
- Iran, India, Mongolia and Pakistan are observers; Iran wants full membership.
Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO):
- Members: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan
- CSTO charter says aggression against one member is perceived as aggression against all; the CSTO and SCO last October signed an agreement pledging closer cooperation; CSTO officials said last year Iran could join if it wished.
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS):
- Members: Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
- Ukraine has not ratified the CIS charter, and says it is a participant, not a member. Georgia has urged Ukraine to follow its example and leave.
GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development:
- Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova.
- Sometimes viewed as trying to counter Russian regional influence; Uzbekistan was a member, but withdrew in 2005.