At the July 2008 Council of CIS Defense Ministers in Bishkek, members agreed to boost air defenses and jointly celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War. Both agreements exposed the CIS’s wish to follow the abrupt success of its smaller branch, the CSTO, whose structures multiplied and military cooperation have widened. While being a military organization, the CSTO’s formation was primarily driven by the common Soviet identity among its members, therefore allowing further expansion of its functions beyond military cooperation. As such, the CSTO sought an ideological dominance among its members through promoting the Kremlin’s ideological projects at the organization’s platform.
BACKGROUND: The CSTO's tempo has been increasing over the past few years, not least because Central Asian states have been developing stronger relations with Russia. Unlike the SCO, where post-Soviet member states' political and economic backgrounds differ from those of China, the CSTO has a certain dynamism and homogeneity given its members' common Soviet history and knowledge of the Russian language that allows easy, often casual, communication among members. At CSTO meetings, members are rarely burdened by bureaucratic procedures; they often convene into ad hoc meetings to work on revolving issues during larger CIS gatherings. Representatives of member states comprehend each other effortlessly, with minimum misunderstandings. The ambiance is reportedly rather lax, with the primary word given to Russian representatives. The Russian language also facilitates easy exchange in the education sector between Russia and other members. Even Kazakhstan, with a comparatively developed military education system, still experiences shortages of qualified cadres and is bound to send its military personnel to Russia. Military education remains prestigious in Central Asia and graduates of Russian schools are able to acquire positions more easily and have greater mobility across military structures. Education in Russia inevitably fosters pro-Kremlin views among the military and influence the military policy.
Aside from collective drills, in 2008 the CSTO began conducting regular sportive competitions among military and non-military personnel. The underlying goal of these competitions is to raise the prestige of military service, nurturing of patriotism among the younger generation, and the promotion of healthy lifestyle. Similar to purely military drills, the Russian Defense Ministry is the main sponsor of these activities, while other members enthusiastically support them. These competitions also serve as a cross-national integration factor for participants. The dominance of Russian command, both in the military drills and sportive competitions, conspicuously recalls the Soviet style of supra-national integration. Similar to the Soviet period, each nation’s ethno-cultural identity is valued and the organization’s declarations translated into members’ official languages, while Russian remains the main language of the competitions. Member states are encouraged to show off their ethnic peculiarities, but their activities are organized and directed under Moscow’s umbrella.
At the competitions in 2008, CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha suggested to establish a special institution within the organization that would continue promoting the consolidation of members’ younger generations. Such a military-sportive club, he proposes, should be established in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul Lake. The institution would complement the existing CSTO’s air-borne base in Kant, located between Bishkek and the lake. Unlike military drills where mostly elite battalions take parts, military-sportive competitions involve regular youth from either military or civilian schools. Focusing on the CSTO’s youth reflects the Kremlin’s greater accent on youth issues starting in the mid-1990s.
In the same vein, the CSTO and CIS promoted celebrations of the 65th anniversary of the Second World War. At the July summit, CIS members agreed to jointly prepare for a contest on military-historic museums for the celebrations in 2010. Celebrations of the anniversary matched Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s glorification of the Soviet experience in the war in their public policy. Previously, Putin’s promotions of the cult of the Soviet victory in the Second World War served as a uniting factor among peoples in Russia allowed him to contrast Russia with the West and underline the country’s historic significance. For the CSTO/CIS, the war is symbolic of a joint victory against the Nazi Germany.
IMPLICATIONS: Given the CSTO’s success in promoting various types of military cooperation, the CIS also made a similar bet on the military domain. In 2008 the CIS Council of Defense Ministers – consisting of ten members after Georgia withdrew in 2006 – seeks to travel the same path and strengthen cooperation in air defense until 2015. The CIS is comprised of ten states and is thus able to gain greater credibility among a wider community of states. The CIS’s agenda includes security issues beyond its members’ territories, with active dialogue staged on strategies of CIS military involvement in Abkhazia and Georgia. The CIS, too, decided to conduct annual anti-terrorism exercises to counter terrorism in the air. Both the CIS and CSTO mooted the possibility of cooperation in air defense since the establishment of the Kant base in 2004. However, until 2008 air defense seemed unrealistic either under CIS or CSTO aegis. When the cooperation at last came into place, it signified a new level of military integration between its members. Air defense of such scope by far surpasses the SCO’s activities in defense.
The CSTO is better known in the Central Asian states than in Russia. During the CSTO military trainings or summits, Central Asian mass media covers the events in great detail, while the Russian public appears more familiar with NATO activities. Furthermore, the Russian public is more exposed to reports of the SCO’s activities , which is perceived rather positively in Russia. Among intellectual circles, the SCO is defined as an organization oriented rather towards economics than security. Interestingly, the growing energy cooperation between China and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – while bypassing Russia – is not condemned among Russian political or academic circles to an extent comparable to western-oriented projects.
The CSTO received stronger attention when it was first launched as a treaty in 1992. Then, the CST was regarded as a remission of the Warsaw Pact. However, as it widened the scope of its activities, the CSTO, according to Russian experts, became closed to the Russian public. While in Central Asia the CSTO further developed into the primary international security organization capable of retaining stability in the region, few in Russia acknowledged its existence as a strategic anti-terrorism organization or as a structure regulating migration processes, facilitating information exchange and promoting military trade. Rather, the Russian public associates national military strength with purely domestic military capabilities. Strong propaganda in mass media on the achievements of military institutions, equipment, enhanced living conditions for personnel and other positive developments increased the public’s trust in the national army. Thus, an influential Russian-dominated security organization is wider recognized in Central Asia, Armenia and Belarus compared to Russia itself. Unlike the CSTO, the CIS is better known to the wider public and Russian experts expect it to gain momentum in the future, given the country’s newfound strength.
CONCLUSIONS: The CSTO is essentially using Soviet instruments of uniting its members on ideological grounds with Russia being the organization’s leader. CSTO officials frequently refer to the Soviet Union as an ideal type of cross-national integration among its members. Reconstructing the potential of the former Soviet Union is often regarded as an ultimate goal pursued by the CSTO. The Soviet past is treated as a valuable experience among the CSTO members, while Russia puts high stakes at the organization’s development, seeing it at times as the only viable medium through which Moscow continues diffusing its political influence. In effect, besides reaching out to leadership position in military cooperation, the CSTO was able to establish and ideological hegemony within its security regime in the Central Asian region.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Erica Marat is a Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.