CSTO: From NATO’s Enemy to Strategic Partner?

CSTO 2012 summit

This week Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka attended the jubilee summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

The summit participants took stock of the organisation's evolution since its founding ten years ago on 14 May 2002, on the basis of the 1992 agreement. They also set targets for the CSTO's future development.

Their goals include two potentially contradictory developments. On the one hand, they hope to enhance cooperation with the West and NATO. On the other, they are set on preventing contagion of the “Arab spring”.  Which of these two goals comes to dominate will have a profound impact on Belarus’ future. 

The CSTO as a time capsule

seven CSTO members have remained frozen in time

Looking back at the decade of political developments outside and inside the CSTO, one gets the impression that the seven CSTO members have remained frozen in time. Belarus and fellow CSTO members Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan remain undemocratic, dependent on Russia, and economically vulnerable.

In the meantime, Belarus’ neighbours Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have joined NATO and the EU. EU membership and access to the EU structural funds have provided a major boost to these states’ economies and ensured the continuation of democratic transformation. These states participate in NATO’s collective defense system and have revamped their militaries.

Out of the seven CSTO member states only Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have changed rulers

Just like in 2002, when the CSTO was founded, Russia is ruled by President Vladimir Putin and Belarus by President Lukashenka. The leaders of Kazakhstan (Nusultan Nazarbaev), Uzbekistan (Islam Karimov), and Tajikistan (Emomalii Rahmon) are starting their third decades in power. Out of the seven CSTO member states only Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have changed rulers.

All CSTO members remain disengaged internationally, but Belarus’ relations with the West have been the most strained. In 2002, the EU states imposed their first travel ban on Lukashenka and his ministers over poor human rights violations. Earlier this year, EU diplomats were recalled from Minsk, and the Belarusian leader has become less welcome in the EU than ever. 

The CSTO members’ ambitions

What has held this motley alliance of autocrats together? At the time of founding, the CSTO states faced very different external security challenges - from Islamic resurgence in Tajikistan to territorial defense from Western enemies in Belarus. As its members were scrambling to develop foreign policy after the Soviet breakup, the group has been held together mostly by default.

Lukashenka openly prioritised controlling social unrest and bridling the power of Internet as the organisation's main targets

However, the threats of popular unrest after a string of colour revolutions and now the Arab Spring have given the alliance a new meaning and kept the leaders coming to the summits. It is not accidental that the CSTO members emphasise developing the collective rapid reaction forces, created on the initiative of Kazakhstan, whose leader has been in power since 1990. Last year, CSTO chair Lukashenka openly prioritised controlling social unrest and bridling the power of the internet as the organisation's main targets.

Besides developing rapid reaction forces, the CSTO has also moved into building drones. Last year, the Interstate Corporation for Development was launched in order to develop “scientific, industrial and high-tech cooperation in CSTO countries”.  The organisation is headed by Ivan Polyakov, a senior CSTO official, and boasts 250 ongoing high-tech projects on its website.

Thanks to the CSTO membership and a close military alliance with Russia, small Belarus has a formidable, even if ageing, military. Lukashenka is keen on using national security it as a trump card in negotiations with Russia.
This year Belarus national defence funding reached $550.1mln, a 3.3 percent increase from last year.
Just as he warns the EU of having weakened border control at the Belarus-EU border, he reassures Moscow that Belarus is a reliable ally in defending the western borders of the “union state”. This year Belarus national defence funding reached $550.1mln, a 3.3 percent increase from last year. At the same time, the armed forces remain greatly impoverished, with average monthly salary around $280.

Looking into the future

Putin has redoubled his interest in the post-Soviet space

Judging by Putin’s diplomatic agenda for the coming weeks, the CSTO's relevance is likely to grow. This year Putin has redoubled his interest in the post-Soviet space.  He cancelled his meeting with Barack Obama at the Group of Eight summit in Camp David on 18-19 May and instead has been planning meetings with neighbours. Kazakhstan is the first to be honoured by his presence - on 25 May, and Belarus will enjoy Putin’s visit on 31 May. 

Even though Putin seems to have neglected Obama, the new goal of the CSTO seems to be to stand next to rather than in opposition to the US and NATO. Building strategic cooperation with the West was first outlined in the report on reforming the CSTO by the Russian Institute of Contemporary Development last year. Another area for reform is changing the decision-making process from consensus to simple majority. What do these developments spell for Belarus?

Belying his anti-NATO and anti-Europe reputation, the Belarusian leader expressed interest in the constructive dialogue with the UN, the OSCE, and NATO in his speech at the jubilee summit. He seemed certain that the outsiders would be interested in such cooperation and even boasted that the organization expanded during the chairmanship in 2006 (jointly with Uzbekistan). Emphasizing the “growing prestige of the OSCE in the world”, Lukashenka wants to see the organisation welcome additional members in the future.

However, both cooperation with NATO and majority decision-making will radically alter the costs of Belarus’ participation in the organisation. Without the consensus requirement, there will be no need to waste time persuading or pressuring Minsk into agreement if Lukashenka’s goals diverge from those of Moscow. More importantly, if NATO is to become the CSTO’s strategic partner, the Belarusian leader will have to mend his relations with the West. While none of the CSTO members are democratic, the costs of open repression as well as of angering the US and the EU diplomats may rise.

two potential incarnations of the CSTO – as an alliance of autocrats that helps its members hold down their populations and as NATO’s partner 

Whether cooperation with NATO or catering to the political interests of the CSTO leaders dominates is likely to depend on Vladimir Putin’s immediate interests. Yet in the long run, these two potential incarnations of the CSTO – as an alliance of autocrats that helps its members hold down their populations and as NATO’s partner in Iran and Afghanistan – will come into conflict with each other.  While even NATO has cooperated with undemocratic regimes, it is much less tolerant of human rights abuses than the Kremlin.

In addition to the symbolic praise, the CSTO declaration produced at the end of the May summit contains a curious aside on the inadmissibility of economic and political pressure – between the CSTO members as well as on them from non-members. One may only wonder whether this statement alludes to the Russian or the Western pressure and whether Lukashenka is behind it.  

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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