CSTO: From NATO’s Enemy to Strategic Partner?
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 Read more
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 Read more
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 Read more
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.
This year Belarus national defence funding reached $550.1mln, a 3.3 percent increase from last year. Read more
Looking into the future
Putin has redoubled his interest in the post-Soviet space Read more
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 Read more
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.
Belarus Plays the Border Security Card with the EU
In response to the EU sanctions policy, Belarus allegedly weakened border control at the Belarus-EU border recently. This puts in doubt Belarus' willingness to implement in the nearest future local border traffic agreements with western neighbours in full.
It makes the prospect of signing a readmission agreement with the EU even more remote, which in turn makes visa facilitation impossible in short term.
"I can increase the number of border guards and customs posts, but you should be ready to pay", Belarusian ruler Aliaksandr Lukashenka said addressing Europeans in April, making it clear that the move comes as a response to the EU sanctions policy. The migration wave to the EU is the result of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, he added.
Egyptians chose Belarus as a transit country since they were aware of the border control weakening, the official communication explained, and was a clear sign of blackmail Read more
Apparently to demonstrate that illegal immigration is a serious problem, Belarusian state media recently reported the alleged detention of Egyptian terrorists who arrived in Belarus with the intention of illegally entering the EU. A group of five who expected to enter the EU “to join the underground resistance that confronts the public and political order of European states”, an official police statement said.
Belarusian state media provided neither their names nor how they arrived to Belarus. Egyptians chose Belarus as a transit country since they were aware of the border control weakening, the official communication explained, and was a clear sign of blackmail.
Belarus has no readmission agreement either with the EU or with any of its member states. That makes a relaxed border policy a more serious problem. Readmission agreements impose legal obligations to readmit own nationals and also, under certain conditions, third country nationals and stateless persons who do not or no longer fulfil the conditions of entry to, presence in or residence in the requesting state.
All the other immediate EU neighbours in the east (Russia, Ukraine, Moldova) have agreed with the EU on readmission. Among the Eastern partnership countries, Georgia lately signed the readmission agreement, too. EU negotiations with Armenia and Azerbaijan are in progress.
Unpleasant Consequences of Worse Border Management
Belarus does not belong to the club of top transit countries and it never has. The last Frontex annual risk analysis mentions Belarus with regard to the trafficking of petroleum products rather than as a significant transit country for illegal migration.
Indeed, a few hundred illegal immigrants coming from Belarus that EU neighbour states detect annually is not a big deal. To put it into context, the total number of detentions of illegal border-crossing in 2011 was 141 thousand, where Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes' constituted 86%.
the alleged weakening of border control is alarming for Latvia, Lithuania and Poland Read more
However, the alleged weakening border control is alarming for Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Although the European side has kept quiet so far, such changes in the border policy of official Minsk is surely of concern to her immediate neighbours. At the same time, playing the border (in)security card will surely bring adverse effects to Belarus' security itself. If Minsk keeps promoting the message of porous western frontier it risks becoming a transit hub for illegal immigrants for real, with all the negative effects that it implies.
Belarus' playing with the border issue and its reluctance to agree on readmission creates a clear obstacle for the development of people-to-people contacts and a visa facilitation regime.
First, reorientation of border forces from the western border to the south indicates that Belarus does not intend to launch long-awaited local border traffic agreements with Lithuania and Poland in the near future. At least, the agreements will not be able to become fully functional, as this requires an intensification of customs and border work, not their reduction. While the local border traffic regime was launched at Belarus-Latvia border a couple of months ago, similar agreements are stuck with Lithuania and Poland for political reasons.
Second, visa facilitation agreements are linked to the readmission agreements. Without the latter, the EU cannot proceed with visa facilitation. There was not a single case of unilateral reduction of visa fees and facilitated procedures introduced by the EU for third country nationals without readmission agreement in force.
Creating a precedent of unilateral visa facilitation for Belarusians will cause problems in the negotiations with other countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan Read more
Currently the so-called EU Visa Code stipulates all the procedures and conditions for issuing short-stay visas. Creating a precedent of unilateral visa facilitation for Belarusians will cause problems in the negotiations with other countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan whose citizens go through the same burdensome visa procedures when applying for a Schengen visa.
Those countries that already went through painful negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission, including Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, would not be happy with EU double standards and more favourable attitude towards their sluggish EaP partner either.
EU Pushes for Negotiations, Belarus Remains Indifferent
In June 2011, the EU Commission sent a letter to Minsk inviting them to start negotiations. Almost a year has passed with no response. During the last few months, the Council recalled its invitation twice. Belarus' procrastination with the negotiations seems ridiculous, as for many years Minsk has been claiming the visa facilitation with the EU countries to be its priority.Belarus worries that “thousands, if not tens of thousand” of illegal migrants would be re-admitted and gather in Belarus if a readmission agreement comes into force
Belarus worries that “thousands, if not tens of thousand” of illegal migrants would be re-admitted and gather in Belarus if a readmission agreement comes into force, Belarusian MFA press-officer Savinykh explained the sluggishness in starting the negotiations.
The readmission issue may be solved either in the framework of Customs Union between Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, or by concluding readmission agreements with EU member states first, he suggested.
Removing a third countries nationals clause from the readmission agreement with Belarus would make Minsk concerns over illegal migrants utterly meaningless. However, such a generous move regarding illegal migration, especially towards an immediate neighbour, holds little value for the EU. Therefore, visa facilitation is a hostage of an apparent gridlock over the readmission agreement.
But how well-founded Belarusian concerns over the readmission agreement are? It turns out, they are greatly exaggerated. First, available statistics on readmission between EU and other countries show that fears about excessive numbers of re-admitted migrants are groundless. In 2010, some 867 persons were readmitted by Ukraine, out of whom 469 were its own nationals (55%).
Second, reports from Belarus and EU member states indicate that Georgians constitute the biggest number of migrants arriving in Belarus with the intention of illegally entering the EU. The current visa-free regime between Belarus and Georgia significantly facilitates their entry. Introduction of visa regime and stricter reviews of visa applications by Belarus' consular service would reduce the number of Georgian nationals that illegally go to the EU via Belarus.
a real figure of re-admitted third country nationals is unlikely to exceed a couple of hundred persons a year Read more
With this in mind, a real figure of re-admitted third country nationals is unlikely to exceed a couple of hundred persons a year, that is much fewer than an official assumption of “thousands, if not tens of thousands' migrants.
Benefits for the population at large from enhanced people-to-people contacts and better border control would seem to highly exceed the potential costs. The only significant cost would be supporting dozens of illegal migrants at a detention centre while seeking for their further deportation to their countries of origin.
The question remains: how sincere is the willingness of Minsk to introduce a facilitated visa regime for Belarusians?..