Shanghai solidarity

Published : Sep 26, 2008 00:00 IST

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: The Dushanbe summit endorses the Russian action in Georgia.

in Moscow

WHEN the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) met for its eighth annual summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on August 28, it had its first major crisis on its hands. For the first time since its inception in 2001, a member-state, Russia, had become involved in a military conflict, even though a brief one, with a sovereign state, Georgia.

The Russia-Georgia conflict put the SCO members in a dilemma. Russia obviously had no choice but to move its forces against the Georgian army after it attacked and killed Russian peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia under a bilateral accord with Georgia. Georgia, however, was a friendly country and moreover belonged to the same organisation the Commonwealth of Independent States to which five out of the six SCO member-states belonged.

On the one hand, Russia sent in its troops to protect the civilian population in Georgia, over 80 per cent of which hold Russian passports. On the other, Russias recognition of Georgias breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was apparently at variance with Article 1 of the SCO Charter, which calls on the member-states to fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism. Moreover, the Russian move may encourage separatist movements in China and in the Central Asian countries that are members of the SCO, and it runs counter to Chinas efforts to have Taiwan back in its fold.

In the end, the SCO passed its first major test of maturity and vitality as a regional security body. There were no attempts to call off or postpone the summit in Dushanbe, and at the meeting itself the SCO leaders stood by Russia in its conflict with Georgia. A joint declaration adopted in Dushanbe explicitly endorsed Russias dominant role in maintaining peace and security in the Caucasus.

The SCO states welcome the adoption in Moscow on August 12 of six principles of settling the conflict in South Ossetia and support Russias active role in contributing to peace and cooperation in the region, said the declaration signed by the leaders of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The SCO solidarity with Moscow stood in stark contrast to the Wests denunciation of the Russian aggression against Georgia and calls for the isolation of and sanctions against Russia.

The carefully calibrated Dushanbe declaration is a masterpiece of diplomatic art. While supporting Russias active role in the Caucasus, the SCO refrained from condemning Georgias military attack on its breakaway territory of South Ossetia. This reflected not only the member-states domestic concerns but also their reluctance to enter into an open confrontation with the United States and Europe.

The seemingly even-handed formulations of the SCO declaration were in fact critical of Georgia, given the fact that it was Georgia which unleashed the military conflict.

Reliance exclusively on the use of force has no prospects, it hinders comprehensive settlement of local conflicts, the declaration said before registering the member-states concern over the South Ossetia crisis. The SCO states express grave concern in connection with the recent tensions around the South Ossetian issue and urge the sides to solve existing problems peacefully, through dialogue, and to make efforts facilitating reconciliation and talks, the SCO declaration said. By refusing to criticise Russia for its decision to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, the SCO leaders agreed by implication to treat them as special cases like Kosovo, while at the same time reiterating their respect for efforts aimed at preserving in accordance with international law the unity and territorial integrity of states.

A highly placed Kremlin source said the SCO leaders were far more outspoken in voicing support for Russia at their meeting behind closed doors in Dushanbe. The official quoted Chinese President Hu Jintao as saying that the Russian response to Georgias attack on South Ossetia was a perfectly adequate reaction to the provocative enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to the East.

Moreover, the Chinese leader expressed his understanding for Russias recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, even as he said that China could not state this publicly because of the Taiwan problem.

At a one-to-one meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the Dushanbe summit, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev said his country understands and supports the measures taken by Russia. Im amazed at the Wests failure to acknowledge the fact that it was the Georgian armed forces which attacked peaceful civilians in Tskhinvali [the South Ossetian capital], Nazarbayev said in televised remarks. This started the conflict, and Russias all subsequent actions were aimed at stopping the bloodshed.

Medvedev, who attended the summit, thanked the SCO leaders for their understanding and objective assessment of Russias peacemaking efforts. I hope [the SCO stand] will send a serious signal to those, who try to justify the bloody adventure of the Georgian leadership, he said adding that Georgias criminal actions had been connived and incited from abroad.

The Russia-Georgia conflict, notwithstanding the SCOs muted reaction, has further deepened the East-West divide. The crisis highlighted the stark reality that the West applies two sets of standards one for itself and its allies and the other for the rest of the world. It was right for NATO to bomb Belgrade and other cities of Yugoslavia to punish it for alleged genocide in Kosovo, but it was wrong for Russia to hit military bases inside Georgia to stop indiscriminate bombardment of South Ossetian towns and villages.

It was right for the West to recognise the unilateral independence of Kosovo, but it was wrong for Russia to do the same for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Serbia had to be split because it was seen as a potential Slavic fifth column in the heart of Europe, whereas Georgias territorial integrity had to be defended even after the Georgian army killed hundreds and left thousands homeless in South Ossetia because Georgia is an enemy of Russia and an ally of the U.S.

There was a more profound reason why the SCO threw its weight behind Russia. The conflict in the Caucasus was not about the fate of Georgias breakaway territories only; it was about control over Central Asia and its energy resources. Ever since the U.S. orchestrated a rose revolution in Georgia, which brought U.S.-educated Mikheil Saakashvili to power, Georgia has been a bridgehead for the U.S. and NATO to push to Central Asia.

Georgia holds the key to the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea and opens the way to Central Asia. The U.S. failed to get a NATO membership road map for Georgia and Ukraine at the alliances summit in Bucharest in April because of opposition from France and Germany, but it won their pledge to have both ex-Soviet states admitted at a later date. The Russian intervention has put those plans on hold and has therefore served the interests of its partners in the SCO.

The crisis in the Caucasus has spurred the SCO states to upgrade and strengthen their cooperation. In Dushanbe, the SCO leaders pledged to establish a mechanism of joint assessment, prevention and response to external threats and challenges to regional security on the basis of a Russian draft proposal.

The SCO leaders took a step towards lifting their moratorium on admission of new members and agreed to set up a working group to study political, legal, organisational and financial aspects of the organisations enlargement. In an effort to extend the SCOs regional and global reach, the summit instituted the status of dialogue partner in addition to the institute of observer. The SCO leaders approved the rules and procedures for granting the new status to international organisations and individual countries.

The SCO also approved steps to allow greater involvement of observer nations in the organisations activities. Medvedev said the observers would be able to participate in the SCOs Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) as well as in the meeting of Transport and Trade Ministers. The SCO leaders also agreed to work out procedures for holding separate meetings with the observer nations at the level of heads of state on the sidelines of SCO annual summits.

The work with the observer states India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan will be elevated to a qualitatively higher plane and will be organised so as to allow their views to be taken into consideration, a communique on the summit said.

While the decision applies to all observers, it is the SCOs closer ties with Iran that will have the most far-reaching geopolitical implications. It will further position the SCO as a force opposed to the U.S. and NATO.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not missed a single SCO summit since Iran joined the SCO as an observer in 2005. Earlier this year, Teheran formally applied for full membership of the organisation. In Dushanbe, Ahmadinejad strongly backed Russia in its conflict with Georgia, while Medvedev, at a meeting with the Iranian leader, promised to speed up the completion of the Bushehr nuclear power project in Iran. Irans greater involvement in the SCO will help derail the U.S. plans to create a Greater Central Asia that would cut off Russia and China and Iran from Central Asia.

In another move to counter U.S. plans, the SCO leaders decided to intensify the work of the SCO-Afghanistan contact group and launch preparations on the ground for holding a conference on Afghanistan under the aegis of the SCO to discuss joint action against terrorism, illegal drug trafficking and organised crime, the Dushanbe declaration said. It is the first time that the Russian initiative for an Afghanistan meet won the support of all SCO members.

The net outcome of the Dushanbe summit is that the SCO came out of it stronger than it was before and dispelled the myth promoted by the West about Russias isolation as a result of the Georgia crisis.

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