Russia in the SCO: How and Why the Attitude Changed Over Time
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation represents a rare example of two rising powers establishing their own organisation. It fulfils several roles: an alternative to West-led institutions, a driver of regional integration, and an unaffiliated platform for Russian-Chinese negotiations. Both countries perceive Central Asia important for themselves. For China, it’s a land of opportunities: natural resources (above all – gas) and logistics (infamous project of re-constructing the “silk road”).
For Russian foreign policy, the region is among its core interests for many reasons. First, it was part of the Russian empire for centuries and Russian influence is still visible across the republics. Second, a more active China threatens Russian well-established hegemony in the region. Third, by supporting like-minded political regimes the Kremlin maintains its “safety belt.” This brings us to a conclusion that the SCO for Russia is two-fold: it`s a Central Asian region (historical interest) and a multilateral institution. For Central Asian republics, the SCO is equally attractive. Since they do not have to ally with either Russia or China. It is possible for them to benefit from the two powers within this institution.
Despite broad prominence and media attention to the SCO as a counterweight to NATO, Moscow seems to be less involved in it over time. According to the information of the archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, first five years after the SCO establishment were most active in terms of archival entries devoted to it. The situation changed in 2006, when the number of entries dropped two times (from total number of 36 in 2005 to 13 in 2006).
There are two groups of explanations for this: first one includes external reasons and the second – internal. While the former consists of an overall international situation and challenges imposed by it, the latter is based in the region itself. This contains institutional explanations and fluctuation of member-states` foreign policies.
The SCO charter was ratified by Russia in 2003, which signifies that the process of establishing and active negotiations took two years. The initial phase contributes to higher number of entries compared to the later years. Apart from that, from its very establishment in 2001, the SCO was a loose organization compared to other regional groupings (for example, ASEAN). By providing a broad anti-terrorist and macro-economic agenda for the region, this institution prefers not to engage into micro-economic issues leaving them to domestic politics and bilateral relations.
Apart from analysing overall number of entries done by the Ministry, it is equally important to look at their emotional connotation. Analysis over time shows that percentage of positive and neutral entries is either equal or with ascending neutral ones. The latter happens more often, which goes in accordance with the concepts of foreign policy of Russia that proclaim the SCO to be important for the country. At the same time, official documents (concepts of foreign policy and press releases) and public speeches of main diplomatic figures (in our case: president and head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) show state perception of global affairs that is then translated to citizens.
Analysis of archival entries over time shows that the majority of them is neutral. The only exception was 5-year anniversary of the SCO establishment marked by equal percentage of positive and neutral entries. Prevalence of neutral connotation is typical for Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Arctic Council – an organization close to the SCO by its characteristics (established after the end of the Cold War by several major powers with smaller ones as member-states) – is also referred to in mostly neutral tone.
Computer-assisted content analysis of the archive of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs proves the argument that Russian supports macroeconomic and anti-terrorist agenda of the SCO. It shows that Moscow more often publicly supported projects related to micro-economics during the first years after the SCO establishment than it did after 2007. Another factor contributing to lower attention to this organisation is strengthening Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union – an institution set to deepen regional integration according to Russian interests.
One needs not to forget the Chinese factor. After observer status was granted to Iran, Pakistan, and India in 2005, Beijing started to lose interest towards further integration within the institution (Trenin, 2012). Since it is China that carries most of the costs, its changed attitude towards the SCO was felt by other member-states. Initiated Silk Road Economic Road (or One Belt, One Road) substitutes other economic and logistic initiatives and enables to bypass Moscow. This decision motivates the Kremlin to develop its own regional ties and promote Russian visions and interests through them.
Second cluster of explanations for falling attention is state-based. As discussed earlier, Russia has been in the centre of Central Asian integration before the SCO establishment. This region was part of the Russian Empire and later Soviet Union. Both these entities left visible implications on the former empire and its former vassals. For modern Russia this means maintaining the role of driver and leader of regional integration. For its Central Asian neighbours – benefiting from Moscow`s financial investments and regional inclusion while counterweighting it with China for the sake of preserving their independence.
Stepping a level closer to domestic situation, one needs to take into account changing character of Russia foreign policy thinking. Main official document that describes the Kremlin visions on foreign policy is the Concept of the Foreign Policy of Russian Federation. Overall, there were 4 of them developed after Putin came to power. These documents show changing character of Russian views on close neighbours and “further abroad.” Therefore, taking it into account while analysing Moscow attitude to the SCO seems to be a logical step.
As discussed earlier, in Russian official discourse this institution is on two agendas: regional and multilateral. This means, it serves as both, Central Asian integrational project and as a multilateral norm-maker. In terms of the concepts of foreign policy, this fact calls for considering both visions when reading the concept.
The first concept signed by Putin as president proclaims good neighbourhood policy and goes in accordance with ideas around the SCO establishment (Kommersant, 2012). The second one (signed in 2008) refers to Russia as a great Eurasian states, a centre of multipolar world that seeks to realize its national interests (Russian State, 2008). Call for strengthening Russian positions in the world and, above all, in direct neighbourhood threatened China that sought to extend its influence on post-Soviet states. For the Central Asian countries, the second concept of Russian Federation was an attack on their independence. This inevitably led to consolidation among themselves and broadening bilateral projects with China.
The third concept (2013) went further and announced deepening cooperation in Eurasia and strengthening existing relations there (Russian State, 2013). It marked establishing the Eurasian Economic Union – adversary to the SCO – that needed most of attention in the Kremlin. Focus on other regional initiatives influenced attention devoted to the SCO: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made only four entries for it in that year.
The latest concept (signed in 2016) repeats ideas of multipolar world where the Western primacy is challenged by emerging powers such as the BRICS (Russian State, 2016). There is also a separate paragraph within the concept devoted to the SCO. In this document, Moscow calls for strengthening global and regional roles of the organization so that it can become an attractive alternative to Western-led projects.
One can argue that the concept of foreign policy is a declaration only; it is far from everyday reality. At the same time, official discourse legitimizes future deeds as it was with the idea of “Russian world” first revealed in the concept of 2008 and later fully realized during the Ukrainian crisis. In case of Central Asia, this brings up a problem of possible rivalry for regional hegemony between Russia and China in the future.
Attitude of Russia towards the SCO changes together with changing foreign policy agenda. It was called “major institution of Central Asian integration” in the first years after its establishment, but then lost its importance for the Kremlin. Rising Chinese influence motivated Russia to initiate its own integration projects in the region, while growing authoritarianism called for focus on improving its leading position regionally and globally. Yet, Moscow does not seem to loosen its grip on the SCO project – it is taking a break to decide on what to do with it. Staying neutral enabled the Kremlin to reserve some flexibility for the future. As of today, it looks as if Russia prefers to deal with Central Asian states and China on bilateral basis rather than engage multilaterally.
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Trenin, D. (2012). Vernyje druzja? Kak Rossija i Kitaj vosprinimajut drug druga. Moskva: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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