Conspicuous by absence: Armenian president shuns CSTO summit focused on Central Asia matters

Two of the six presidents of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)-member countries were absent from the Russia-led defense alliance’s informal summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, held on Tuesday. Those were the presidents of Belarus and Armenia.

According to official information, Serzh Sargsyan was missing the Bishkek meeting because May 28 was marked in Armenia as First Republic Day and he intended to take part in the activities.

(Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko has been at loggerheads with the Kyrgyz authorities over his granting political asylum to the country’s fugitive former president).

However, as a number of analysts noted, Sargsyan’s refusal to attend the summit rather looked like a demarche against Russia. One could only guess the reasons for it – Russia continues to supply weapons to Azerbaijan, it has raised the price of natural gas for Armenia, Russia continues to stubbornly obstruct Armenia’s European integration efforts.

But, apparently, there is also another reason. The main issue discussed at the summit, as CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha said later, was the developing situation in the CSTO zone of responsibility in connection with the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan expected in 2014. Speaking about possible cooperation between the CSTO and NATO, Bordyuzha said that the North-Atlantic alliance was still not ready for it. “We have not heard from NATO representatives regarding the question about possible cooperation with the CSTO,” he concluded.

Nevertheless, the Bishkek summit was attended by the presidents of Central Asia republics – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, as well as Russia, as NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will affect them in the first place.

Political analyst Igor Muradyan believes that NATO could shift responsibility for the situation in Central Asia onto Russia and the CSTO. It will be a very heavy responsibility, since the withdrawal of NATO will lead to an increase in drug trafficking as well as the export of terrorism from Afghanistan.

Perhaps Sargsyan did not go to Bishkek to demonstrate Armenia’s refusal to participate in any CSTO operations in Afghanistan. Now Armenian peacekeepers, as part of a German contingent, participate in NATO operations in this restive region. But it is doubtful Armenia will agree to send troops to Afghanistan as part of the CSTO.

Besides, the summit discussed the issue of the possible construction of a Russia-Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan railway and the strengthening of external borders. That is, this issue does not concern Armenia either.

After all, what will be Armenia’s position if the CSTO decides to enter Afghanistan? Can one expect it to pull out of this military bloc or freeze its membership in it? Armenia is diversifying its foreign relations on all fronts - economic, political. At the same time, it is giving assurances that it will remain a CSTO member, while maintaining only partnership relations with NATO. However, failure to participate in CSTO operations in Afghanistan could change this balance.

The Central Asian countries, which will be on the “frontline” after the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, will have to defend their borders in some way. Two years ago Uzbekistan quit the CSTO and established links with NATO, thus trying to safeguard itself. Turkmenistan remains neutral, and the other three countries of the region have to seek Russian military assistance.

CSTO troops have never participated in combat operations before. In fact, CSTO peacekeeping units will be set up only in autumn. And Afghanistan is likely to become the place where CSTO troops will either get battle-hardened and shaped into a proper military alliance like NATO or see this idea buried for good in the Afghan mountains.