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08-28-2008, 12:44 AM, (This post was last modified: 08-28-2008, 12:45 AM by ---.)
A EurasiaNet commentary by Stephen Blank

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While coming under increasing criticism from the West over its truculent behavior in Georgia, Russia looks set to garner support from other Shanghai Cooperation Organization members when the group holds its annual summit in Dushanbe on August 28-29. The gathering will be watched closely by the United States and European Union for insight into Russia’s diplomatic intentions on an array of fronts, especially the Iranian nuclear question.

The heads of state of the SCO’s six members -- China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- are scheduled to attend the summit in the Tajik capital. Also participating will be top officials from India, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. Citing security needs, Tajik authorities reportedly sealed the country’s borders on August 24, according to a report distributed by the web site. The country will remain closed to outsiders until August 30, the report added.

Summiteers indicated that the Caucasus crisis would be high on the agenda. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, speaking during a briefing in Beijing, said that member states "can discuss the issues they are interested in … including the issue of South Ossetia." That China will endorse Russia’s actions in the Caucasus is a foregone conclusion. In return, Russia and Central Asian states are expected to express unequivocal support for Beijing’s aggressive campaign to eradicate the "three evil forces" of instability -- terrorism, separatism and extremism -- among Western China’s restive Muslim population.

Perhaps the key moment of the Dushanbe gathering will not be part of the official agenda. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to hold his first meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the summit sidelines. Given that the Caucasus crisis has spurred a collapse in Russian cooperation with the West, experts from around the globe have suggested that Russia may opt to boost its nuclear cooperation with Iran, or announce that it will block any effort in the United Nations security council to impose fresh economic sanctions on Tehran. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Medvedev-Ahmadinejad meeting should provide a clear indicator on how Russia plans to proceed on the Iranian nuclear issue.

The Dushanbe summit seems set to turn into a forum for America bashing, but that doesn’t mean there is sufficient consensus to transform the group’s words into concerted action. In an interview with the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, the summit host, Tajik leader Imomali Rahmon, hyped the SCO’s potential. "The SCO could become an inalienable part of the global security system and the center of the world’s economic development," Rahmon said.

It certainly remains a possibility that the six member states can forge a greater measure of security cooperation. But differing economic priorities will work against efforts to promote a greater sense of SCO cohesion.

One big area of contention is Russia’s idea of using the SCO as the basis for forming an energy club. Apparently, Moscow’s main motive is a desire to prevent Central Asian states from exporting energy without Russia’s involvement. The chief flaw with Russia’s cartel ambitions is that it runs counter to the interests of China, which is a high-volume importer, along with the exporting states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The ongoing rivalry between China and Russia for influence within the SCO also complicates efforts to bolster the organization’s capacity. Beyond a mutual dislike of the US strategic presence in Central Asia, Moscow and Beijing differ on many issues. Russia appears more interested in using the SCO as an instrument for military cooperation, while China prioritizes the group’s potential for expanding trade. A joint declaration issued by Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao during a bilateral summit last May expressed solidarity on a number of strategic issues, in particular NATO’s possible expansion into Ukraine and Georgia. But the two countries were unable to find common ground on other matters, such as energy supplies and arms sales.

In addition to the complicated Chinese-Russian relationship, spats among Central Asian member states detract from the spirit of cooperation. Perhaps the biggest trouble spot is the Kazakh-Uzbek competition for primacy in Central Asia. Another is the Tajik-Uzbek discord that flared again recently when Tajikistan’s Chief Justice Nusratullo Abdulloev accused the Uzbek government of complicity with the terrorist bombing of the Tajik Supreme Court building in 2007. That is only the latest example of a long-standing relationship of mutual suspicion between Tashkent and Dushanbe.

Over the long term, it remains to be seen whether the SCO can meet Moscow’s expectations. However, the Dushanbe summit seems sure to fulfill Moscow’s immediate needs by delivering a diplomatic boost. And if Russia expresses a desire to greatly expand nuclear cooperation with Iran, the Kremlin could greatly exacerbate an already difficult dilemma for the international community.

Editor’s Note: Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.

Posted August 26, 2008 © Eurasianet

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