Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2017, 15:16 GMT

Is SCO unity an illusion?

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Igor Rotar
Publication Date 22 August 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Is SCO unity an illusion?, 22 August 2007, available at: [accessed 19 November 2017]
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A EurasiaNet Commentary by Igor Rotar

The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit held in Bishkek fostered an image of unity among Central Asian states. The reality of the region's political and economic conditions, however, belies such solidarity.

According to a joint communiqué issued in connection with the August 16 summit, SCO member states – China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – agreed to take coordinated, though unspecified action to promote regional stability. In addition, SCO members indicated that they are fully capable of ensuring Central Asia's steady economic and political development – a backhanded way of saying a strong US presence in the region is neither needed, nor desired.

Joint military exercises involving troops from SCO states, staged August 9-17 in Russia in conjunction with the Bishkek summit, reinforced the impression that the organization is striving to become a security alternative that renders American strategic involvement in Central Asia redundant.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed the gathering as the most productive yet. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an interview posted on his presidential website, scoffed at the notion that the SCO aims to develop a military capability that would enable it to challenge the United States and NATO for strategic supremacy in Central Asia. Putin insisted that "the economic element is the main focus" of the SCO, going on to say that "concerning the military element, it is not military per se, but an anti-terrorist element."

Regardless of the SCO's nature, Putin and other Russian officials have exuded optimism that the organization can serve as an instrument of pressure, helping the Kremlin achieve a major strategic aim in Central Asia – the drastic reduction of US security and economic influence in the area.

Underlying conditions in Central Asia suggest that Russian confidence may be misplaced. The prevailing spirit among Central Asian states is more confrontational than it is cooperative.

One of the most acute problems in Central Asia is on-going inter-ethnic tension. This tension is largely responsible for Uzbekistan's acrimonious relationship with Tajikistan, and it has also complicated Tashkent's ties with Kyrgyzstan.

The present situation in the Soghd Region in northern Tajikistan is extremely tense, underscored by the early August convictions of three Uzbek nationals on espionage charges by a local court. This wasn't the first espionage incident in the region, as three other Uzbeks were found guilty of spying for Uzbekistan in 2006. "Such trials do not surprise me at all.

Tajikistan's border regions with Uzbekistan are home to a sizeable Uzbek diaspora, which the Tajik authorities tend to see as a 'Fifth Column,'" said Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, a political scientist affiliated with the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.

Tajik-Uzbek relations have been in the deep freeze for almost a decade. Tajik leaders remain convinced that Tashkent played an influential role in stoking a failed 1998 uprising in northern Tajikistan against President Imomali Rahmon's government. The leader of that incident, former Tajik Col. Mahmud Khudoiberdyev, escaped capture, and according to some accounts, found sanctuary in Uzbekistan.

Soon after the failed 1998 uprising, the then chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Said Abdullo Nuri, reportedly met in Dushanbe with Juma Namangani, the leader of a radical Uzbek militant group who at the time was living in Tajikistan. Soon after that meeting, Namangani and his followers made an armed attempt to return back home. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Rahmon remains worried that Tashkent is intent on using the Uzbek diaspora in Tajikistan as a means to gain political leverage over Dushanbe. According to Saifullozoda, about a year ago Rahmon signed off on a plan to resettle ethnic Tajiks in areas densely populated by Uzbeks in western Tajikistan. The aim of the resettlement policy is to reduce Uzbek influence in border areas. "The exact number of those resettled is not available. However, according to some estimates, it has exceeded 10,000 families," Saifullozoda told EurasiaNet.

In Kyrgyzstan, a potentially volatile situation is brewing, centering on efforts by ethnic Uzbeks in the southern Osh and Jalal-abad regions to secure broader civil rights. Since the downfall of former president Askar Akayev's administration in 2005, Uzbeks have increasingly complained about being treated as second-class citizens. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has been slow to respond to Uzbek expressions of concern, apparently out of a desire not to rile his presidential administration's nationalist support base.

A far greater source of tension among Central Asian states is connected with the use of scarce water resources. Even at the Bishkek summit, tension over the water issue was evident, as Uzbek President Islam Karimov voiced alarm about water-related projects that would affect the flow of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. In particular, Karimov is wary of several dams in Tajikistan that are either under construction or on the drawing board. Some Central Asian experts have also voiced concern about Chinese intentions to build dams to accommodate economic growth in western Xinjiang Province. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Even if the worst-case scenarios fail to play out involving Tajik and Chinese dam projects, local conflicts over water resources appear to be inevitable. The situation along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border offers a case in point. In 1989, violent inter-ethnic clashes over the use of canal water broke out along the border of Kyrgyzstan's Batken Region and Tajikistan's Isfar Region. The water-use issue remains unresolved to this day, in part because the inter-state frontier has yet to be fully demarcated.

The myriad squabbles over ethnic rights, water, borders and other issues hamper the ability of Central Asian states to trust one another. And lacking mutual trust, it is doubtful, at least over the near term, that the SCO will be able to reach a level of consensus needed to undertake substantive action in fact, and not just on paper.

Editor's Note: Igor Rotar is the Central Asian correspondent for EurasiaNet. Sergei Blagov in Moscow contributed reporting to this story.

Posted August 22, 2007 © Eurasianet

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