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Moscow Times
August 21, 2007
Misconceptions About the SCO
By Ivan Safranchuk
Ivan Safranchuk is director of the Moscow office of the World Security Institute.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's annual summit in Bishkek and its tactical military exercises at Garrison Chebarkul, located in the Chelyabinsk region near the Ural Mountains, raised many questions about the alliance's impact on the West's security interests. In particular, Western experts often raise concerns that the SCO is being converted into a military organization whose main mission is to oppose NATO.

To be sure, the security potential of the SCO is growing, but energy, economic, social and humanitarian issues are equally important aspects of the organization's agenda. Moreover, it would be a gross oversimplification to view the SCO as an alliance whose only goal is to counterbalance the United States and provide political support for such U.S. opponents as Iran. This interpretation of the SCO may represent the fears and nightmares of certain politicians and experts in the West, but it in no way represents the ambitions of its members.

Besides Iran, other countries with observer status include India, Pakistan and Mongolia. Are they also a part of an anti-U.S. alliance? And what about Afghanistan, the country liberated and occupied by the United States and NATO? For the second year in a row, this country has been represented at the SCO by President Hamid Karsai. Is Afghanistan also a part of this anti-U.S. alliance?

It is incorrect to label the SCO as an anti-U.S. organization just as NATO cannot be characterized as anti-Russian. The SCO has other priorities on its agenda that do not involve the United States.

On the controversial issue of Iran's observer status in the SCO, it is understandable and completely logical that the organization would want to include an influential country in the Central Asian region. Another reason to involve Iran in the alliance is that it is much wiser to engage Tehran than to isolate it, which would only exacerbate its marginalization.

The military aspect of the SCO will always remain, but the organization also places social issues and economic development as top priorities. The main ideological foundation of the SCO is based on the understanding that security and development are interconnected issues. In Central Asia, security is a prerequisite for development and vice versa. There is no other international or regional alliance that can fulfill this function for Central Asian countries. NATO has no development dimension, while the European Union is weak in the security sphere.

Energy projects within the SCO are of particular importance for the member countries. The organization is unique because it unites some of the world's largest producers and consumers of oil and gas. This cooperation underscores the importance of "energy security," which will become the foundation for regional security and development.

The SCO is becoming an increasingly important focus for Russia's policy toward Central Asia. Right after the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Russia cooperated very closely with the United States and Europe in this region. Why has Moscow turned away from Washington and Brussels and toward the SCO?

One important factor is that the United States and Europe have expressed a keen strategic interest in Central Asia. The United States has established a military presence and has been promoting infrastructure projects in the region with little regard for Moscow's interests in the region. For Europe, access to the resource-rich region is crucial to lowering its oil and gas dependence on Russia. The tension in European-Russian relations has been aggravated by the fact that Europe is trying to increase its influence in an area that Moscow considers its backyard. Russia would very much like to convert European energy dependence into a more cooperative formula based on interdependence and mutual trust, but Europe's geopolitical strategy to decrease dependence on Russia is driven largely by its mistrust of Moscow.

As a result, Moscow has turned to the SCO, which can unite and engage all Central Asian countries and neighboring powers that have clear political, economic and security interests in the region.