RUSSIA FAILS TO WIN OVER REGIONAL ALLIES  Central Asian states and China have 
their own separatist problems and are wary of Moscow’s recognition of 
secessionist entities.  By Lola Olimova in Dushanbe


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Central Asian states and China have their own separatist problems and are wary 
of Moscow’s recognition of secessionist entities.

By Lola Olimova in Dushanbe

If Russia was expecting its neighbours to vigorously defend its recent military 
intervention in Georgia when they gathered for a regional summit in Tajikistan 
late last week, it was mistaken.

When the presidents of Russia, China, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and 
Uzbekistan gathered in Dushanbe on August 28, the big question was what 
position they would take on Moscow’s military incursions into Georgia. 

Although the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, SCO, is often seen as a 
grouping of Central Asia states dominated by Moscow, in this instance it took a 
different view – offering no criticism of Russian actions, but no overt 
support, either.

Analysts interviewed by IWPR say the reason for this muted reaction is that 
Central Asian leaders realise that with populations dwarfed by their giant 
neighbour and a number of troublesome territorial issues of their own, they 
have more in common with Georgia than with Russia.

The SCO includes another regional power, China, which regards talk of 
separatism and the redrawing of borders as anathema because of the problems it 
faces in Tibet and Xinjiang. 

At the same time, analysts say that even the conditional, lukewarm backing 
offered by the SCO meeting was a much-needed boost to Russia, which finds 
itself standing almost alone in the face of international criticism.

The Russian offensive followed an attack by Georgian troops on Tskhinvali, the 
capital of the unrecognised republic of South Ossetia, overnight on August 7-8, 
overturning a peace that had held, despite tensions and occasional clashes, for 
the last 16 years.

The Russians quickly drove Georgian forces out of South Ossetia and moved 
beyond the entity’s borders to capture the town of Gori. Far to the west, 
Russian soldiers crossed out of Abkhazia, another separatist entity to which 
Moscow is sympathetic, to eliminate a Georgian army base south of the border 
and occupy the key Black Sea port of Poti. 

Russia went on to recognise both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent 
states – a move roundly condemned by the West, and one that could have profound 
implications for other regional states, most of which contain ethnic minorities 
and semi-autonomous regions.

The Shanghai grouping emerged in 1996, becoming the SCO in 2001 with the 
inclusion of Uzbekistan, and focuses on regional security concerns, often 
encapsulated as what Chinese leaders call the “three evils” – terrorism, 
separatism and extremism.

Some western analysts suggested at the time that the SCO – the first grouping 
of former Soviet states to embrace China – would grow into a counterbalance to 
NATO. The organisation has granted observer status to Iran, India, Pakistan and 
Mongolia. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the Dushanbe summit, 
as did another neighbour, Afghanistan’s Hamed Karzai, as a guest.

Ahead of the summit, Russia’s SCO partners maintained a stony silence on the 
Georgian conflict, with one exception, Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakstan, who 
publicly backed Moscow.

The final resolution issued by the SCO contains just two shortish paragraphs 
expressing “concern at the recent tensions over South Ossetia” and urging all 
sides in the conflict to resolve it through dialogue and seek “reconciliation 
and negotiations”. 

The nearest the statement came to backing Moscow was to encourage “Russia’s 
active role in promoting peace and cooperation” in South Ossetia.

Elsewhere in the document, member states underlined their commitment to 
international legal provisions that demand respect for national identity and 
the territorial integrity of states.

And in a passage that discusses local conflicts generally rather than the 
Russian-Georgian case, the statement said solutions could be only be found “if 
the interests of all sides are taken fully into account and they are drawn into 
the negotiating process rather than being excluded”. “Attempts to strengthen 
one’s own security at the expense of others is not conducive to global 
security,” it added. 

Political analysts told IWPR that this was a clear allusion to recent events, 
and was about as far as the signatories could go in upholding Georgia’s 
territorial rights without offending Moscow.

At the concluding press conference, the only leader to speak was the host, 
Tajik president Imomali Rahmon, who read out a prepared statement.

All this was a long way from the wholehearted backing the SCO has given Russia 
in its efforts to crush separatists in Chechnya. 

Insiders at the meeting told IWPR that Moscow tried to get the declaration 
changed to include tough wording referring to Georgian “aggression” and even 
“genocide” committed against the South Ossetian population. 

But this did not get approval, and the wording in the final document was 
formulated by the Chinese, not the Russians.

Rashid Abdullo, a political scientist based in Dushanbe, said the carefully 
worded “Dushanbe Declaration” reflected an awareness by all SCO members, 
barring Russia, that they too might face the same kind of problems Georgia has 
with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

“The independent movement in Tibet and Xinjiang has long been a headache for 
the Chinese leadership,” said Abdullo. 

“Kazakstan’s leaders have a similar headache – albeit not such an obvious one – 
with their [largely ethnic Russian] northern regions. In Kyrgyzstan, there’s a 
lot of suspicion about the Uzbek community, which is concentrated in the 
[southern] Fergana regions.” 

Abdullo said the international recognition given to Kosovo when it formally 
declared itself independent of Serbia in February had been felt all across the 
former Soviet Union. In Uzbekistan, for example, calls for secession had begun 
to be heard in the northern province of Karakalpakstan, which has the status of 
an autonomous republic. In Tajikistan, there were separatist murmurings 
following protests in the southeast region of Badakhshan in June.

According to Abdullo, none of the SCO states could raise concerns about the 
implications of Russia’s actions too openly for fear of angering Moscow. In 
addition, he said, these countries were concerned about the “shocking methods” 
Georgia had employed in its bid to recapture South Ossetia – launching a 
night-time bombardment of civilian areas of Tskhinvali.

He noted that when Russian president Dmitry Medvedev recently set out five 
principles guiding the Kremlin’s foreign policy, they did not include a clear 
statement of respect for other states’ territory and independence, but did say 
that Russia would defend its citizens and business interests anywhere in the 

“That has to be a worry for the former Soviet republics that are now 
independent states,” he said. 

Tajikistan, in particular, is not in a position to lecture Moscow. A political 
observer close to the government in Dushanbe told IWPR that support for this 
major ally had to be “unconditional” because of Tajikistan’s proximity to 
unstable Afghanistan and the fact that hundreds of thousands of Tajiks support 
their families by working as migrant labour in Russia.

Tajikistan is the only Central Asian republic with a substantial Russian 
military presence, in the shape of the 201st Division. 

Parviz Mullojanov, another political analyst in Tajikistan, argues that one of 
the reasons why Russia’s former Soviet allies were being less than fully 
supportive was that they had been put off by the rhetoric coming out of the 
Kremlin, which drew uncomfortable comparisons with Russia’s imperial past. 

“The tone of the Russian press and the propaganda create an impression among 
many non-Russians that the day is nearing when the disassembled parts of the 
Soviet Union will be gathered together once again, starting with Moldova, then 
the Crimea and Ukraine, and so on,” he said. 

For a long time before it recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, 
Moscow had a policy of granting Russian passports to people there. And in the 
recent conflict in Georgia, it has used the fact that many South Ossetians are 
technically Russian nationals as justification for protecting its own people. 
Mullojanov said many former Soviet countries were now asking themselves “what 
if they [Russians] start handing out passports somewhere there, so that later 
they can come to the defence of their new fellow-citizens?” 

Apart from concerns about their own national security, SCO leaders also have to 
consider that times have changed and they need to maintain good relations with 
a range of states, in the West as well as Russia.

“No one wants to be faced with the clear-cut choice of ‘either you’re for us or 
you’re against us’ any more,” said Mullojanov. 

In addition, he said, only “outcasts from the international community” have 
backed Russia’s position on the crisis, and “none of the SCO leaders is keen to 
be placed in the same bracket as [Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez or [Cuban 
leader] Fidel Castro”. 

Lola Olimova is IWPR’s editor in Tajikistan.

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