The six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with Russia and China at its core, marked its 10th anniversary Wednesday with a lavish summit in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, with leaders from nearby Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Mongolia attending as observers. Member states are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
But beneath the bold official declaration that the SCO has "stood the tests" of time as a loose trade and security association, experts say there is growing concern that former Soviet Central Asia faces a potential tsunami of political destabilization on the horizon. Though the organization has been stepping up security cooperation among its members, including joint Russia-China war games, there is no talk of transforming the SCO into a cohesive military alliance such as NATO that might be capable of decisive, unified action in a crisis.
Aside from a brief condemnation of US plans to build a globe-girdling missile defense shield – a reflection of the Kremlin's near-obsession with what it regards as a looming strategic threat to Russian security – Wednesday's SCO summit, largely conducted behind closed doors, dwelt mainly on two perceived threats to the region's stability.
Arab Spring might influence the region
In the near term, the shock waves from the "Arab Spring" prodemocracy revolts are penetrating the region, whose regimes are all varying degrees of post-communist autocracy, raising the specter of mass unrest, particularly in Central Asia's most populous state – and harshest dictatorship – Uzbekistan.
"Today, the world faces very serious challenges," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said. "This year began with the so-called Arab Spring, which emerged a brand new situation in the Arab East and in Northern Africa. The consequences of what we witness there are most likely to continue over a long period," he added.
The main worry is that the democracy bug might strike Uzbekistan, where former Communist Party chief Islam Karimov still maintains total personal control, brutally suppresses signs of political dissent, and cracks down on even moderate public expressions of Islam. According to the independent Kommersant FM radio station in Moscow, Mr. Medvedev had a tough private talk with Mr. Karimov on Tuesday, and may have even suggested that he resign.
"Instability in Uzbekistan is viewed as very possible in Moscow. Medvedev believes some problems might be solved before it comes to an uprising, perhaps by giving people more rights," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected Duma deputy. "Medvedev gently suggested to Karimov that he stop using torture and perhaps be more lenient toward Islam. But it's impossible to talk to Karimov about this. He's a very difficult person, and he runs an extremely complicated country."
The SCO's worst nightmare is an implosion in Uzbekistan, which would reverberate around the region, destabilizing at least the weaker regimes around it, including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
"In such a case it's hard to know what Moscow's options might be," says Markov. "Russia and China are closely monitoring the situation, and will probably take steps to help suppress any uprising that occurs. There are no other good options."
Nervous eye on Afghanistan
In the longer run, the SCO is deeply worried about the possible failure of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and that country's reversion to the anarchy that prevailed after the USSR ended its disastrous nine-year occupation in 1989.
"Russia is calling for more intensive and deeper cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan," Medvedev told the summit. "Eventually, the process of political stabilization in Afghanistan depends on this (extended cooperation with the SCO), and the security of our states to a great degree depends on the situation in this country," he added.
Though it's politically impossible for Russia to commit troops to Afghanistan, due to the still-painful Soviet defeat, Moscow has been searching for ways to rebuild its influence with infrastructure projects, sales of helicopters, and increasing cooperation with Western forces in combating the mass narcotics smuggling that has flooded former Soviet Central Asia and Russia with illegal drugs since the NATO war began.
"Afghanistan was the main reason the SCO was created 10 years ago, even before 9/11 forced the Americans to recognize the threat," says Markov. "The threat of radical Islamism being exported into our region is something we're very familiar with. And now it seems that the US will be unable to solve the problems of Afghanistan, a resurgence of that threat has got to be a major concern."
Tajikistan, an SCO member, suffered nearly a decade of brutal civil war fueled largely by cross-border infiltration, which ended only after NATO destroyed the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan allege that Afghan drug money, allied with local Islamist militants, are behind ongoing unrest in that country's ethnically diverse south. Uzbek leaders similarly blame Afghan influences for a 2005 revolt in the Fergana Valley city of Andijon, which was ferociously put down by Uzbek security forces, with an estimated 500 civilian dead.
"The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, and this concerns all the surrounding countries," says Alexander Dugin, head of the right-wing International Eurasian Movement, an influential group of Russian academics, business people, and policymakers. "The West is far away, but we are near. This is our security zone, and that is why only an organization like the SCO can potentially hold out a constructive alternative for Afghanistan."