Two regional security organizations emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was established in 1992, followed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. Kazakhstan is a founding member of both organizations. The original five members of the “Shanghai Group” in 1996 were Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. This group became the SCO in 2001.
Protests and violence erupted in Kazakhstan in January 2022 after a sudden and sharp increase in liquefied gas prices. At least 8,000 people were arrested and dozens died, including citizens and police. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested military assistance from the CSTO on January 5, 2022 “to help Kazakhstan overcome this terrorist threat”.
Following this request, the CSTO intervened and deployed forces to suppress and control the protests and violence. The response recalled the intervention of the Soviet army during the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968. During this time, the SCO had no serious and practical reaction. It was not until five days after the protests began, when the CSTO and Kazakh security forces took control of the situation, that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson told reporters on January 7 that “China and other SCO members…are ready to play a positive role in stabilizing the situation.”
Why did Tokayev ask for military assistance from the CSTO but not from the SCO? If Kazakhstan’s leaders and officials have declared the protests and violence a “terrorist threat,” why not seek help from the SCO’s regional counterterrorism structure in Tashkent, Uzbekistan? When protests and violence escalated, why did Kazakhstan’s political and security officials first turn to the CSTO?
To answer these questions, six points must be considered:
First, the CSTO structure is Russian, but the SCO structure is Russian-Chinese. The CSTO includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia. These countries have long-standing historical, linguistic and cultural ties that bring them together. The common experience of living together under Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) unites them. In fact, although three decades have passed since the end of the Soviet Union, these countries still often think and act like Soviet republics in critical moments. There is no shared history or experience between these countries and other SCO members such as China, India and Pakistan. Therefore, when Kazakhstan finds itself in dire straits amid protests and violence, the country’s leadership turns first to the CSTO, not the SCO.
Second, the CSTO has only six members (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia) and all share close political ties. This makes the CSTO much more cohesive and responsive than the SCO, which also includes Pakistan and India along with several other observer and partner states. It is more difficult for the SCO to take immediate action in times of crisis, which is why Kazakh leaders felt that the CSTO would react more quickly. Critics and opponents, especially those in Central Asia, of the SCO’s expansion said it was already going too far. Recent events in Kazakhstan perhaps testify to the arguments of these critics.
Third, the SCO is not codified as a “Collective Security Treaty”, unlike the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Article 4 of the Warsaw Pact and Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty call on members to defend each other in case of attack. There is no obligation in the SCO Charter for members to defend each other against military aggression. In this respect, the CSTO, and not the SCO, assumes the function of collective security. The “objectives and tasks” of Article 1 of the CSO Charter call on members to “combat jointly against terrorism, separatism and extremism in all their manifestations” and to “cooperate in the prevention of international conflicts and their peaceful settlement. In contrast, Article 3 of the CSTO charter states that the “objectives of the Organization are the strengthening of international and regional peace, security and stability, the protection of independence on a territorial integrity and sovereignty of Member States, in the achievement of which Member States prefer political means The difference in commitment between the CSTO and the SCO in favor of collective security seems to have had an influence on the Kazakh government’s decision to seek help from the CSTO.
Fourth, the SCO’s approach to dealing with regional and international crises has been largely passive over the past two decades. Unlike the Warsaw Pact and NATO, which have been active in regional and international conflicts and crises even outside of Europe and North America, the SCO has taken no such action. . A clear example of this is the silence and inaction of the SCO in the face of the crises in Georgia (2008), Syria (2011) and Ukraine (2014). The Russian Federation intervened militarily in all three conflicts, but the SCO took no action. In this respect, the practical approach of the CSTO is very similar to that of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
It is understandable that many observers view the deployment of the CSTO in Kazakhstan as similar to the Warsaw Pact approach to Czechoslovakia in 1968. The CSTO was formed in the midst of a civil war in Tajikistan in 1992, and the organization has played an important role in maintaining security and stability in the country and in Central Asia. Over the past two decades, the passivity of the SCO and the activism of the CSTO in the face of regional and international crises have played a significant role in the decision of Kazakhstan’s leaders to use the CSTO to suppress protests and violence.
Fifth, the CSTO’s Collective Rapid Reaction Force enables it to respond quickly to crises in member countries, unlike the SCO. The Collective Rapid Reaction Force, created in 2009, is designed to respond quickly to threats to the security of CSTO member states. The total force numbers 18,000 personnel in units of the armed forces of CSTO member states supported by modern weapons and equipment. This too includes special forces and “units of internal affairs (police) bodies, security bodies and special services, as well as authorized bodies in the field of prevention and liquidation of the consequences of emergency situations”. The structure of the rapid reaction force within the CSTO is similar to the structure of the “rapid reaction force” and the “special units” of the police and security forces inside the country. This allowed the organization to respond quickly to unrest in Kazakhstan. But there is no such structure at a similar level with comparable characteristics in the SCO. Despite the SCO’s “regional counterterrorism structure” in Uzbekistan, there is no cohesive and coordinated task force in the organization.
Finally, the protests and violence from Kazakhstan posed a different threat to Russia, which plays a central and prominent role in the CSTO, than to China, India, Pakistan and other members of the OCS. China’s strategic threats are in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. India and Pakistan’s strategic threats come from Afghanistan and South Asia. But Russia’s strategic threats lie to the west and in the surrounding regions of the CIS, which the Russians call their “near abroad”. Moscow viewed the protests and violence in Kazakhstan as part of a larger picture with Ukraine and the Black Sea, Belarus and the Caucasus. In Russia’s view, these developments are part of a Western project to pressure Russia. For this reason, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a videoconference members of the CSTO on January 10, 2022, that “we will not allow the realization of so-called color revolution scenarios”. Kazakh leaders appear to have recognized that the protests and violence in Kazakhstan were a greater concern for Russia than China, India and Pakistan, which helped to deal with the threat within the CSTO.
These six points explain why Kazakhstan turned to the CSTO rather than the SCO in the face of the January 2022 protests. While each organization plays an important role, the CSTO was much better suited to respond to the upheavals in Kazakhstan. He was always likely to play a central role in the protests.
Vali Kaleji holds a PhD in Area Studies, Central Asia and Caucasian Studies. He has written on Eurasian issues at the Jamestown Foundation (Eurasia Daily Monitor), the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (American Foreign Policy Council), The National Interest, the Valdai Club, and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). He can be reached at [email protected].