Features | Security | Central Asia

What’s Happened to the SCO?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has kept a low profile during the Kyrgyzstan crisis. So what exactly is the group for?

The current crisis in Kyrgyzstan is one of the most acute in the history of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was founded in 2001 following years of less formal diplomatic interactions among the heads of China and its neighbouring former Soviet republics.

Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the SCO, along with China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, made the institution a possible player in the Kyrgyz crisis. Yet, the SCO had only a bit part in the Kyrgyz drama, allowing other actors to steal the show. Even so, it would be incorrect to presume that the SCO might not assume a more prominent role in another crisis in a member state under different circumstances.

Following years of discontent and months of growing public protests in the Kyrgyz Republic, in early April opposition forces seized control of key government buildings in the capital of Bishkek. At least 83 people died and more than 1500 were wounded in the uprising, primarily due to the decision of the security forces to try to repress the protests with force. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who came to power following a similar but less violent popular uprising in March 2005, known popularly as the ‘Tulip revolution,’ fled the capital and returned to his power base in Jalalabad, in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Thanks to the mediation efforts of various foreign governments and international organisations—especially those of neighbouring Kazakhstan, which fortuitously held the status as the Chair-in-Office in 2010 of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe—Bakiyev left the country voluntarily on a Kazakh plane on April 15. Even so, Bakiyev’s supporters in the south have continued to seek his reinstatement. In mid-May, they clashed with Uzbek militia based there who sought to prevent his return to power.

Meanwhile, the opposition-led provisional government that has gained control in Bishkek has announced that it will hold a referendum on a new constitution, which would rebalance political power from the presidency to the parliament, followed by national elections within six months. The future domestic and foreign policies of the faction-ridden interim government remain unclear, with the different government leaders making various and sometimes conflicting remarks. Disagreements persist over such important issues as the degree of state control of the economy, how to reduce longstanding tensions between the northern and southern parts of Kyrgyzstan and what should be the main directions of the country’s foreign policies. The Kyrgyz economic situation remains dire. The country lacks the oil, gas and other natural resources of some of its better-endowed neighbours, while the leadership of the provisional government remains in flux, with even key posts frequently changing hands.

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Shortly after widespread government protests broke out in Bishkek and other cities in Kyrgyzstan, SCO Secretary General Muratbek Imanaliyev issued a statement expressing the organisation’s ‘concern over the recent events in the Kyrgyz Republic which have caused human casualties, and conveying sincere condolences to the families and friends who have lost their loved ones.’ The statement added that, ‘Peace, security and political stability in the Kyrgyz Republic, that is a member state of the SCO and a close neighbour to other SCO states, is of overriding importance for the whole region.’

Yet despite this declaration, and the fact that Imanaliyev is himself a Kyrgyz national, the SCO has remained surprisingly disengaged from the current crisis—even during its most acute phase, when the country looked like it might descend into civil war. It was not until April 19 that Imanaliev visited Kyrgyzstan to meet with officials of the new provisional government. The head of the interim administration, Roza Otunbayeva, pledged to fulfill all of the country’s SCO obligations. Acting Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, meanwhile, tried to reassure Imanaliev that the interim administration had restored internal and border security and Imanaliev promised to work with other SCO members to supply the new government with assistance to overcome its current crisis.

One reason for the SCO’s low profile is that its members adamantly defend the principle of ‘non-interference’ in countries’ domestic affairs. The SCO governments interpret this injunction as immunizing them against foreign criticisms of their human rights practices or other perceived encroachments on their national sovereignty. After perceived election improprieties precipitated colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the SCO formed its own cadre of election observers. Since their initial use during the February 2005 ballot in Kyrgyzstan, they have endorsed every election held in a member state, despite the comprehensive criticisms offered by other foreign monitors. Along with the traditionally compliant monitors organized by the Commonwealth of Independent States, the SCO observers help bolster the legitimacy of Central Asia’s authoritarian regimes by giving the appearance of independent certification of the often questionable election results.

Yet, the SCO members have made efforts to establish both their right and their capacity to help member governments counter internal threats. At the June 2006 leadership SCO summit, the participants adopted a fifth anniversary declaration providing for immediate consultations during ‘emergencies that threaten regional peace, stability and security.’ Furthermore, the SCO has organized a number of ‘anti-terrorist exercises’ that have involved paramilitary as well as intelligence and law enforcement personnel.

In October 2002, China and Kyrgyzstan conducted the first bilateral anti-terror exercise within the SCO framework, involving joint border operations by hundreds of troops. In August 2003, all the SCO militaries, with the exception of the armed forces of Uzbekistan, participated in the first formal SCO-sponsored multinational exercise, ‘Cooperation 2003.’ It included more than 1000 troops engaging in several counterterrorism scenarios in eastern Kazakhstan and China’s Xinjiang region.

During the unprecedented Chinese-Russian military exercises of August 2005, all six SCO defence or deputy defence ministers attended as observers. In late August and early September 2009, the SCO conducted the two-phased exercise, ‘Volgograd Anti-Terror 2008.’ During the first phase, the participants rehearsed how to avert terrorist attacks by detecting and investigating them in advance. During the second phase, they drilled conducting joint operations in these areas.

But the largest SCO ‘anti-terrorist’ exercise to date, ‘Peace Mission 2007,’ occurred from August 9-17 of that year. These exercises marked the first time in which the militaries of all 6 full SCO members participated, with almost 6,500 troops and 80 aircraft involved in the 2 phases, including 2,000 troops from Russia and 1,600 from China. Peace Mission 2007 began on August 9 in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Area, and ended on August 17, with a live-fire exercise at the Russian military training range near Chelyabinsk, in Russia’s Volga-Urals Military District.

The drills in Xinjiang led some observers to speculate that the exercise was aimed at intimidating China’s Uighur population and Central Asia’s democrats. In addition, the scenario for Peace Mission 2007—as well as the thousands of troops involved with accompanying warplanes and other heavy military equipment—seemed designed to enhance the ability of the participating armed forces to suppress another attempt at a popular rebellion, such as the one that occurred in Andijon, Uzbekistan, in 2005. At the time of this incident, the SCO was not capable of organizing a military intervention to repress the uprising, which appears to have involved citizens dissatisfied with the government’s policies as well as anti-regime militants. Since then, the SCO has tried to develop such a capacity.

Notwithstanding these expanding security activities, the SCO has remained primarily a security organisation (i.e. focused on countering transnational threats from non-state actors such as terrorists), rather than becoming a collective defence structure like NATO (i.e. possessing capabilities for waging conventional wars against non-member countries). The organisation still lacks dedicated military forces, an integrated command structure, or even a combined planning staff. SCO activities continue to emphasize promoting confidence-building measures, strengthening border controls, developing collective emergency response mechanisms for natural and manmade disasters and facilitating law enforcement and intelligence cooperation against terrorism, narcotics trafficking and other transnational challenges. SCO leaders consistently deny any intention to create a Eurasian version of NATO. They justify the institution’s large security exercises as a necessary response to the challenge of countering modern terrorist movements equipped with increasingly sophisticated firepower.

One possible purpose of these SCO exercises is show Central Asian governments that China and Russia have the ability to defend them against internal rebellion and terrorists, thereby reducing their perceived need not rely on Western countries for their defence. Russia in particular has benefited from highlighting the threats to regional stability to justify its local military presence. Unlike the United States and other NATO countries, Moscow has not experienced problems retaining its air base at Kant or elsewhere in Central Asia. At the time of the Peace Mission 2009, the Russian government was seeking a second military base in southern Kyrgyzstan. President Bakiyev said that he might approve a new Russian military base so that Russian advisors could help train the region’s armed forces to combat the growing threat of narcoterrorism.

Despite SCO leaders’ general agreement that the organisation should defend its incumbent governments against foreign-inspired Internet or terrorist threats, they’ve been divided over whether to respond collectively to serious but nonviolent domestic challenges. In particular, the SCO governments continue to disagree over whether the organisation should protect its members against further collared revolutions. During the spring 2005 government crisis in Kyrgyzstan, for instance, SCO members couldn’t agree on joint action. Russia, whose leaders still consider Central Asia as falling within their security zone, reportedly blocked Chinese efforts to organize some kind of collective military intervention.

The same divisions appear to have paralyzed the SCO in the case of the latest crisis in Kyrgyzstan. To deal with similar challenges in the future, some members might try to transform the SCO into a revived Warsaw Pact-like institution (an ‘authoritarian international’), whose goal would be to guarantee its non-democratic governments against both external and internal political challenges. But such a development would alienate the organisation even further from Western countries and would presumably be opposed by SCO observer states India and Mongolia. And, complicating things further, full SCO member Kazakhstan has also been seeking to affirm its liberal democratic credentials as OSCE chair. It seems unlikely that it would welcome having its political evolution constrained by an authoritarian condominium led by China and Russia.