The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) held an informal summit last Saturday in Armenia, during which the six member states agreed to amend the organization’s charter.

The CSTO faces some very serious problems. The organization proved itself completely helpless when confronted with the recent events in Kyrgyzstan, especially the unrest and pogroms that took place in the south of the country. I set out my view on this issue in an article – “The Kyrgyz Bell” – published on the website in June. Rather than calling on the CSTO to intervene in the conflict or send peacekeepers, I noted the urgent need for better analysis and forecasting of events, ongoing political consultations, and effective and coordinated action by the CSTO member states.

Matters of Concern

The situation has quieted down in Kyrgyzstan, but this calm is deceptive. The parliamentary election scheduled for autumn could rock the boat once more, and there is no guarantee that the balance of power produced by the election will be stable. In the medium term, the security not only of Kyrgyzstan but the entire Central Asian region is at risk from the potential radicalization of the population in the Fergana Valley. In the valley, there is not only fertile soil for social unrest but also forces ready to mobilize that unrest to topple the current regimes in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

In this context, Uzbekistan is key; instability in Uzbekistan would destabilize the entire region. During the recent crisis in Kyrgyzstan, when ethnic Uzbeks in the south of the country were driven from their homes and many people were killed, Uzbek President Islam Karimov demonstrated exceptional restraint and calm. But just how long Karimov–the founder of modern Uzbekistan and now 72 years old–can keep his hold on power in this country of 25 million people is another question. If a crisis were to erupt in Uzbekistan, there would be no letting it simply burn itself out and die down again, following the approach taken to the events in Osh.  

In the medium term we also need to take into account the various possible developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the event of a U.S. and NATO withdrawal. There are serious grounds already for fearing that radicals and extremists could increase their influence in the region and eventually become more influential elsewhere, including in Central Asia.

This should be a matter of concern to the CSTO’s leaders. Their organization and their ability to take effective collective action could face serious tests in the not-too-distant future. But as things stand today, there is absolutely no guarantee that the CSTO will be up to the tasks ahead. This organization, now into its second decade, is not living up to its aim of guaranteeing the security of its member states. Responsibility for this state of affairs lies with the cornerstone members; above all with Russia, as the organization’s informal leader.

While There Is Still Time

First of all, the CSTO needs to focus on the biggest security threat. For most of the CSTO countries today (for Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, in any case), the largest security threats come from hotbeds of instability within Central Asia and in adjacent regions. There are other problems too, in the Caucasus in particular, but they do not affect the interests of the majority of member states and can be resolved by members independently or on a bilateral basis. The CSTO’s focus needs to be, above all, on Central Asia.

Second, the CSTO needs to integrate a serious political component into its organization. Its political dimension today boils down to regular summits between the presidents of member countries and to the work of the organization’s general secretariat and its staff. This is not enough. The organization needs a modern international political component with a multinational, integrated structure that would work on analyzing and forecasting developments, as well as on short-term and strategic planning, coordinating the efforts of member states, and developing a dense network of person-to-person contacts at the operational level. This political side of the organization could have its headquarters in, say, Astana, Kazakhstan.

Third, the CSTO needs a more solid military component. This component needs to be directed against real and predicted threats, not merely a pale and anachronistic imitation of the Warsaw Pact. A joint missile defense system is clearly not the biggest priority for the CSTO today. The Collective Rapid Reaction Force is an important and useful new development within the CSTO, but so far it exists more on paper than in reality. This force is intended to be specifically aimed at fighting insurgent and terrorist groups, but such an instrument alone is not enough. The CSTO also needs collective police and peacekeeping forces able to prevent and suppress riots, as well as interethnic, social, and other internal conflicts.

Fourth, the CSTO requires broad political and expert support from the member states. The organization will have a stronger future if each of its members sees it as an important guarantee of its national security and, through the members’ joint efforts, of the region’s security. This goal will be achieved not through periodic interviews given by the CSTO secretary general, but through detailed and thorough joint political efforts. Furthermore, the CSTO also needs constant analytical support from sources outside its own and member states’ governmental framework. Alongside official support, it needs independent expert international and national support.

Fifth, the CSTO needs to find its place within the international security system at the regional and global levels. It needs to cordially, but at the same time clearly, define its relations with its main regional partner – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These relations could be based on the principle of making the SCO responsible for development, for example, and the CSTO responsible for security. The CSTO also needs to develop its interaction with other forces present in the region, above all with NATO and the United States. And it needs to build up its relations with the main regional players – China, India, Pakistan, and also with Turkmenistan, which is not a CSTO member. Finally, the organization must also closely monitor the situation in and around Iran.

Summing up, one could say that the CSTO has been something of a neglected stepson in the eyes of its member states’ leaders. The outside world perceives it as an instrument of Russian political domination, and the member states consider it a polite nod to Moscow and a channel for purchasing Russian arms at bargain prices. This attitude must end before it is too late. The situation in Central Asia is sufficiently serious for the leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan, and other countries to change the way they view the CSTO and start turning it into a real instrument for guaranteeing regional security. The time for routine summits is over. The time to reform the CSTO has come.