Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Moscow's Lonely Road from Bishkek to Dushanbe*

Article excerpt

One of Russian leader Vladimir Putin's most important foreign- policy initiatives has been the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)-a regional international organization he cofounded in 2001 that groups together Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The stated aims of the SCO are to combat the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and extremism, as well as to promote various forms of cooperation among the member governments. In addition to these stated goals, however, Moscow has attempted to make use of the organization to resist efforts at democratization emanating from inside and outside the member states, to limit American and other Western influence in Central Asia, and to promote Russian foreign-policy goals generally.

Up through the August 2007 SCO summit in Bishkek, Putin had good reason to be pleased with the SCO. Although there were some important differences among various members, the SCO appeared to be a useful mechanism for advancing Moscow's priorities. In the year leading up to the August 2008 summit in Dushanbe, however, Moscow has experienced a number of setbacks with regard to the SCO. The most important of these occurred at the Dushanbe summit itself when the SCO members refused to endorse Moscow's military action in Georgia or its recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence. Although both the SCO and Russian membership in the organization will undoubtedly continue, these events suggest that the SCO's utility for advancing Russian foreign-policy aims is quite limited.

The SCO grew out of the Shanghai Five, which was established in 1996 in order to resolve border issues between China on the one hand and the four former Soviet republics neighboring it (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). At the group's July 2000 summit (the first attended by President Putin), the leaders announced the organization's intention to "wield significant influence not just in the region, but globally as well." With the addition of Uzbekistan at the June 2001 summit, the Shanghai Five became the SCO. The first SCO joint military exercise, though only involving about 1,000 servicemen, took place in 2003. Mongolia gained observer status at the June 2004 summit.

What happened at the 2005, 2006, and 2007 summits in particular gave the impression that the SCO was emerging as a powerful organization successfully challenging American "hegemony." Shortly before the July 2005 summit, the United States and other Western governments criticized Uzbekistan for using force to suppress largely peaceful demonstrators in the town of Andijon. Uzbek leader Islam Karimov took offense at this and demanded that the U.S. forces that he had allowed into his country after 9/11 be withdrawn within six months. At the July 2005 SCO summit shortly thereafter, the SCO presidents issued a joint declaration calling upon the United States to set a timetable for pulling out all the military bases it had acquired in Central Asia after 9/11. Washington did indeed withdraw the forces it had stationed in Uzbekistan a few months later, and had to pay considerably more in order to retain its base in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, Iran, Pakistan, and India were granted SCO observer status in 2005.

The 2006 SCO summit was noteworthy because it was the first one attended by Iran's sharply anti-American president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (he also attended the 2007 and 2008 summits). His presence raised concerns that the SCO might encourage or even support Tehran's confrontational approach toward the West. At the time of the 2007 SCO summit, SCO military exercises took place in China and Russia involving 6,000 troops. This raised concerns in the West that the SCO could become a military alliance.

Despite all this, it was clear that there were important differences among the SCO members. Putin in particular saw security cooperation as the primary focus of the SCO, whereas the Chinese leadership viewed economic cooperation as its primary purpose. …