Fear and Loathing in Central Asia

How Russia plans to use a previously obscure international organization to reassert its control over its "near abroad."


Twenty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Moscow is doing its best Humpty Dumpty impression-trying to pick up its pieces and put them back together again.

Fueled by last decade’s record-high energy prices and emboldened by the U.S. preoccupation with distant war zones, Russia has stepped up attempts to re-establish hegemony over what it calls its "near abroad." Its chosen vehicle for this mission has been the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the once nearly defunct regional grouping comprising Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Once little more than a loose alliance of former Soviet states, Russian moves to deepen the integration of CSTO members have accelerated dramatically over the past year.

When the CSTO was formed in 2002, few foresaw such a prominent role for the organization. After all, a group to coordinate economic and military issues in the region already existed: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which had a longer pedigree and consisted of many of the same countries. Yet, as Russo-Chinese competition in the region heated up over energy- and trade-related issues, Moscow sought to work through an alternative regional framework that excluded Beijing from a leadership role. As a result, the CSTO quietly emerged as Russia’s forum of choice.

Russia’s investment in the organization has paid off. The CSTO has held annual joint military exercises since 2005, but in 2009 it went a step further, establishing a "Collective Rapid Reaction Force." The force’s ostensible purpose is to coordinate regional responses to natural disasters, drug trafficking, and terrorist threats, but Russian leaders are increasingly envisioning a grander view of its role. In February, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that the force should be "armed with the most modern weapons and must be on par with NATO forces." The agreement also allows Russia-for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991-to legally station its troops within the territory of its neighbors.

Even more significantly, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan announced in January the formation of a tripartite customs union, a trade pact intended to increase economic integration among the three former Soviet countries. For Russia, this is an important first step toward consolidating its leverage over its former vassals — and laying the groundwork for a more comprehensive "common economic space" that Moscow hopes to establish by 2012.

These steps have led some to ask whether the world is witnessing a rebirth of the Soviet Union. Those fears, however, are premature — so far. Although Russia has managed to significantly revitalize its influence in Central Asia, it has hit a number of speed bumps in reasserting its old hegemony in the region.

Not every country has proved eager to cede its sovereignty to Russian designs. In fact, the CSTO’s ramped-up efforts at integration have caused a significant backlash from several of its member countries.

Until recently, Uzbekistan was Russia’s most vociferous critic within the organization. At the June 2009 CSTO summit, which announced the formation of the rapid-reaction force, Uzbekistan (along with Belarus) declined to sign the agreement after it became clear that joint leadership of the force by the member states was not part of Russia’s plan. (Russia mandated that it would have more troops in the force, would lead the group, and would base the force where it pleased.) Uzbekistan also vehemently objected to Russian plans to establish a new CSTO military base in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan, just miles from the Uzbek border, because it would house Russian troops. Moscow has at least temporarily shelved the plan, but not before inciting Tashkent to boycott several CSTO meetings in protest.

The recent outbreak of violence in Kyrgyzstan and the CSTO’s decision not to intervene have also caused considerable tension among Central Asian countries, as well as within Russia itself. Ultimately, the organization determined that intervening in an internal conflict was not permitted under the CSTO charter, a practical decision (announced as a legal one) that pleased Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. However, it incensed Kyrgyz officials, who had invited CSTO (and Russian) forces to intercede amid fears that the country was teetering on civil war.

The Russian media’s reaction to the CSTO’s timidity was equally brutal. A Moscow Times article declared that the organization’s inaction "demonstrated that Russia is incapable of being even a regional leader," while Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an online opposition newspaper, portrayed the CSTO as a dying organization whose restraint exposed the futility of trying to establish a "zone of privileged interests" in the former Soviet space.

Yet it is the new customs union that has produced the sharpest resistance — primarily from Moscow’s longtime ally, Belarus. Trade squabbles have long been a constant feature of the Moscow-Minsk relationship, despite the fact that the two countries have technically considered themselves a "union state" since 1995. But in January, providing critics with further evidence that the union was little more than a Russian power grab, Moscow unveiled the trade pact the very same week it introduced a series of export duties on refined-oil products from Belarus. This decision, which followed an earlier imposition of export duties on crude-oil deliveries, quickly brought these long-simmering tensions to a boil.

For Minsk, these new "duties" — which Moscow imposed as a retroactive $200 million fee — not only contravened the spirit of the customs union, but also threatened the viability of Belarusian oil refineries, the country’s most profitable sector. Minsk responded furiously, bringing suit over the duties in the Commonwealth of Independent States Economic Court and declaring in April that the CSTO "had no prospects" in its current form. With Belarus refusing to budge, Russia and Kazakhstan were embarrassingly left to launch the customs union on July 1 by themselves. Disaster was only averted by a last-minute Russian concession: Moscow agreed to lift the export tax in January 2012, leading Belarus to join the union five days later.

Meanwhile, Kazakh support for the customs union is hardly a certainty, at least in the long run. While Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev remains a steadfast supporter, his powerful prime minister, Karim Massimov, reportedly prefers closer relations with China, where he has long cultivated ties. Should the septuagenarian Nazarbayev fall ill or die, the Massimov faction could emerge from a succession struggle with the influence to distance the country from Russia, if not secure the presidency itself.

The key to the future of the customs union, and ultimately the CSTO, is whether the pact has the wherewithal to develop into a more fulsome economic union — presumably a monetary union, based on the Russian ruble, that is able to expand its reach throughout former Soviet Central Asia. This certainly seems to be the plan, judging by Medvedev’s statements last month that a common economic space might develop into a "common market and … ultimately … the foundations for a shared currency zone."

Assuming the customs union follows this evolution, Ukraine is the most likely near-term candidate. While Uzbekistan and Belarus have provided Russia with constant headaches, Moscow has watched smugly as Ukraine has gravitated back into its orbit. This year, pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych unseated the pro-Western incumbent, Viktor Yushchenko. Together with the new, pro-Russian prime minister, Mykola Azarov, he has worked tirelessly to cement stronger Russo-Ukrainian ties.

These efforts have included bilateral agreements on gas supplies, the extension of Russia’s lease on naval facilities on the Black Sea, and negotiations over a potential merger (read: engulfment) of Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz by Russia’s Gazprom. Should Russia continue to acquire control of key Ukrainian economic sectors, accession to the customs union might be a mere formality.

Russia also appears interested in eventually luring in the rest of Central Asia, perhaps by absorbing the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) — comprising the current customs union members plus Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine as observers. Russia’s decision in early April to introduce a punitive tariff on refined-fuel products from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was widely seen as a move to pressure both countries in that direction, a conclusion supported by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s statements at a EurAsEC meeting in late May: "As far as I know, there is not a single member of EurAsEC which would not like to join the work of the customs union. We will work with you in this direction."

Indeed. The CSTO may not yet be the Soviet Union, but Moscow has proved itself quite willing to borrow pages from its playbook.

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