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Special Report: Central Asian Neighbours Close Ranks

Regional leaders join China and Russia in stressing the need for US bases to close, and for external forces to stop meddling.
By Zamir Karajanov

A regional security grouping that brings Russia and China together with four Central Asian states is increasingly asserting itself as a bulwark against external influence - particularly that of the United States.


Meeting in the Kazak capital Astana, the presidents of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, SCO, ended their tenth annual summit on July 5 with a strongly-worded statement urging the US to set a timetable for closing its military bases in Central Asia.


The "active military phase" of the US-led Coalition's operations in Afghanistan was over, said the statement, so it was "necessary for relevant members of the anti-terror Coalition to set final dates for the temporary use of: infrastructure and the stationing of military contingents on the territory of SCO member countries".


Up until now the SCO has focused on domestic and regional concerns of its six members, and has tended not to take an explicit stand on their other external relationships. For example, the four Central Asian members are also members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and have taken part in NATO military exercise, and since 2001 the Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks have allowed the US and its allies the use of air bases.


The statement has been seen as a sign that the Central Asians (Turkmenistan is not an SCO member) are turning away from their engagement with the West in recent years, towards their two big neighbours who are less likely to raise difficult questions about human rights and democracy.


Uzbekistan, in particular, has been riled by the US government's insistence that there be a fair and independent investigation into the May 13 violence in Andijan, where security forces fired into a large crowd of demonstrators.


For Russia and China, the statement may have been an opportunity to take an indirect swipe at the Americans, whom neither country wants to see settling down for the long haul in Central Asia.


Originally set up in 1996 to deal with border issues between China and what used to be the USSR, by 2001 the original "Shanghai Five" had acquired Uzbekistan as a sixth member and transformed itself into the SCO with security issues high on its agenda.


Apart from resentment of western influence, and a willingness to support the present Central Asian regimes for fear of something worse, there is little common geopolitical ground to unite Moscow and Beijing, whose historical role and present interest in the region differ substantively.


FAREWELL TO AMERICAN AIRBASES?


The SCO's expressed view on US Coalition bases in Central Asia was mirrored in the two key countries concerned. In a sign that its once-warm relationship with Washington was cooling because of differences over the Andijan violence, Uzbekistan had already placed restrictions on the American military's use of the air base at Khanabad, forcing them to shift flights to other routes. (See Uzbeks Back Away From America)


More surprisingly, Kurmanbek Bakiev - elected as Kyrgyz president on July 10 as a direct result of a popular revolution which shocked both Moscow and his Central Asia neighbours - appeared to fall into line with the longer-established presidents of the Shanghai group. He signed up to the wording on bases and then, on July 11, he said on Kyrgyz TV that it was time to reconsider the US airbase near Bishkek. (See Kyrgyzstan: Toeing Moscow’s Line?)


The US State department responded to the SCO statement by making it clear that it would talk with countries where it had a military presence only on an individual basis. "Our presence: is determined by the terms of our bilateral agreements under which both countries have concluded that there's a benefit to both sides from our activities," said the State Department's Sean McCormack.


The most senior US military officer, General Richard Myers, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was blunter, saying he did not regard the SCO statement as "particularly useful".


"Looks to me like two very large countries were trying to bully some smaller countries. That's how I view it," Myers told reporters. He added, "Security and stability in Central Asia is an important concept, and those who can bring security and stability ought to be welcome in Central Asia."


UZBEK LEADER FINDS SYMPATHY ON ANDIJAN ISSUE


The Andijan violence was central to the Shanghai six's discussions. "These events: exerted a very strong influence," Rustem Lebekov, director of the European Centre for Political Studies in Almaty, told IWPR.


Uzbek leader Islam Karimov set out his version of what happened in Andijan for his fellow-presidents - he has said previously that about 173 people died, some of them from the security forces but the majority armed rebels.


Eyewitness reports that several hundred civilians including women and children may have died have led to the international community, including the US administration, pressing the Uzbek government to allow an independent investigation.


In one of the strongest statements yet, State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters on July 13 that this year's aid allocation to Uzbekistan would be influenced by whether this request was met. "Obviously how the government of Uzbekistan responds to this issue is certainly a factor in that decision-making," he said.


So far, Uzbek leaders have rejected calls for a proper investigation, and in the face of such awkward questions from the West, President Karimov appears to have turned to the Shanghai group for uncritical support.


"Against the background of criticism, this summit was vital for Karimov," Sanat Kushkumbaev, a political analyst in Kazakstan, told IWPR.


NO TO REGIME CHANGE


Finding a receptive audience, Karimov was able to cast the Andijan unrest within the broader context of regime change and regional instability - issues that SCO leaders were able to agree on with few reservations, even though one of them, Kyrgyzstan's Bakiev, is himself the product of a revolution.


"The tone was set by countries which see their goal as being to maintain the status quo of existing regimes in the Central Asian countries, and this probably happened at the suggestion of Uzbekistan," said Maksut Sarsenov, a senior analyst with the Association for Political Analysts and Sociologists of Kazakstan.


Karimov told his fellow presidents that recent events in Central Asia are "merely the individual manifestations of a far-reaching geopolitical plan, which has the ultimate goal of changing the political and economic position of forces for its own benefit, so as to dominate in Central Asia".


According to Kushkumbaev, "It is clear that the insinuation was against the West in general, and certainly the US."


The SCO's executive secretary, Zhang Deguang of China, gave voice to a collective sense of resentment that outsiders should presume to encourage member states to improve their records on human rights and democracy.


"Exporting a ready-made model of social development cannot lead to social progress, but the reverse - it will create chaos and disrupt the normal process of political and economic development, throwing society backwards," he told summit participants.


THE THREE EVILS


China has a particular interest in SCO membership as it provides an instrument for curbing external help to separatists in its own restive province of Xinjiang, where the Uighur population have much in common with their Central Asian neighbours.


Speeches made by Chinese officials spoke of "three evils" - terrorism, separatism and extremism - which together represent a serious threat to security and stability in the region.


The final SCO declaration clearly reflected these particular Chinese concerns just as it did Uzbekistan's. Member states committed themselves "not to provide refuge to individuals charged with or suspected of terrorist, separatist or extremist activities, and to extradite these individuals if appropriate requests are received from another SCO country".


Afterwards, Zhang commented with satisfaction, "The summit correctly assessed and responded to the situation in the region, taking the decision that member countries would continue to strengthen unity and interaction with the purpose of intensifying the war against the three evils."


TOUGH STANCE RAISES HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS


That wording has serious implications for Uighur ?migr?s in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, opposition figures from various Central Asian countries now living in Moscow, and most immediately for people who fled the Andijan violence to neighbouring states


"The Andijan refugees in Kyrgyzstan: are now under close scrutiny, because this provision places at least a moral obligation on Kyrgyzstan to extradite them - exactly what Tashkent is insisting on," said Kushkumbaev.


Sarsenov believes the move will, if member states adhere to it, have profound effects on civil and political rights in Central Asia.


"Anyone can be classified under this definition, and if it is interpreted too widely, then this may ultimately mean that the space for opposition activity in these countries, especially Uzbekistan, will shrink even further. If it was minimal before these events, now it may be reduced to zero," he commented.


HOW FAR TO BACK THE CENTRAL ASIAN REGIMES?


The mutual support contract that SCO members have signed up to is of particular benefit to the four Central Asian states, since the ruling administrations in Moscow and Beijing are not in imminent danger of collapse.


After Georgia and Ukraine, Central Asia had its own version of the velvet revolution this year when longstanding Kyrgyz president Aksar Akaev was chased out of power by a popular revolt. Initially there was consternation in Moscow and especially in Central Asia, where presidents of a similar vintage to Akaev have no plans to step down or to allow themselves to be ousted. But Bakiev, a former opposition leader, appears to have been accepted by his peers, perhaps because of concessions on his part.


Accepting Bakiev into the fold does not mean the SCO members plan to allow a repeat of the revolution elsewhere. As in Georgia and Ukraine, western influence in the political process - and increasingly, in anything to do with democracy and civil society - is viewed as pernicious.


What will happen now, according to Lebekov, is that "if in a particular SCO country there is an attempt by the West, the OSCE or the US not to acknowledge elections, and to hold repeat elections along the lines of the Ukrainian scenario, the political elite will always enjoy moral and political support from the other SCO members".


He concluded, "If they understand that they will find support in Beijing or Moscow, this will boost confidence."


The view is, then, that regime change is to be ruled out - at least as far as SCO states are prepared to go to prevent it.


"Reading between the lines of speeches made by SCO members, one sees that the status quo must be maintained, and that political elites must not be changed," said Sarsenov.


Analyst Kushkumbaev takes a slightly different view, suggesting that as seen in Kyrgyzstan, "for Beijing or Moscow it is not that important who is in power; if another group of people come to power, they will establish dialogue with them as well".


While Moscow and Beijing may now view the strongman regimes of Central Asia as a factor for stability, it could all go badly wrong, Kushkumbaev argues.


"The profoundly personalised nature of power relations in the Central Asian countries is becoming a weak link in the SCO structure," he said. "No one can guarantee that a future political elite which came to power on a wave of truly radical opposition would not announce that it was withdrawing from the SCO."


A GROWING INTERNATIONAL FORCE


This year may mark the emergence of the SCO as a serious player in a big region, strong on security and stability but less interested in human rights in its members states.


"This summit demonstrated a position directed at containing the US and its allies in the post-Soviet area," said Kushkumbaev. He added that the precise contours of this stance had yet to be delineated, as "much will be determined by the major players in the SCO, China and Russia".


While the SCO appears hostile to anything it sees as external meddling, it is courting neighbouring states as it seeks to carve out a geopolitical role for itself.


India, Pakistan and Iran were granted observer status for the first time, joining Mongolia.


As Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev commented, "Sitting around this table now are the heads of countries representing half of mankind."


Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR correspondent in Almaty


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