By Fernando Delage (for Safe Democracy)

Fernando Delage explains the role of the recently formed Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in what many see as the eastern alternative to NATO. The organization, led by China and Russia, has as one of its principal objectives to hinder and counteract the growing influence of the United States in Central Asia. Yet the possibilities for change of the SCO span beyond its capacity as a defensive and diplomatic group. With enough European and American backing, the SCO could serve as a major starting point for the authoritarian nations in Central Asia to undergo great political change.

Fernando Delage is a member of the Advisory Council of the journal Foreign Politics in Spain.

WHILE NATO PLAYS OUT ITS FUTURE IN AFGHANISTAN, Central Asia’s new diplomatic alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), has been busy staking a claim in world politics as the eastern (albeit non-democratic) alternative to NATO’s western supremacy.

Made up of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia and China, the SCO is slowly moving towards accepting new members. India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia have been observers since 2005, and may soon enter the process of integration into the group.

The SCO was created officially in June of 2001, as an extension of the already established organization the Shanghai Five (1994). China has taken on the leadership of the organization, and currently finances and houses its headquarters, where the most recent summit was held on June 15th of this year.

Through cooperation with Russia and the other republics of Central Asia, China hopes for the SCO to serve as a defensive organization against non-conventional threats to Central Asian security. Terrorism is the most pressing issue on the SCO’s agenda, as well as the reduction of armed forces on the borders of its member countries. At the summit of 2003, the organization also included economic cooperation among its objectives. Turkmenistan is the only Central Asian republic not to have joined the SCO because of its continued desire to stay neutral.

The increased American presence in Central Asia following the terrorist attacks on the twin towers has aroused much concern within the SCO. Before 9/11, Central Asia was of little strategic importance to American foreign policy.

Since then, attempting to stop the growing American influence and manipulation in Central Asia has become the top priority of the SCO, and a real uniting force throughout the region. In an area marked by constant ethnic and religious rivalry, conflict over resources and political systems, the common desire to contend with the United States has had remarkable success in creating unity where there once was none.

Many see in the SCO the possibility for a counterbalance of power to the monopoly on force that the United States currently exercises over the world. Yet, while the States declares its goal to end all tyranny in the world, it is hard to ignore that the SCO is characterized by nothing but authoritarian regimes.

It would be a grave error to forget the deep social, economic, and political problems of Central Asia’s governments, amid the excitement of a newly formed diplomatic organization. Exposed in 2005 by the Central Asia Human Development Report, the current state of the region is marked by repression and tyranny and will only sink further into poverty, and inequality if the authoritarianism of Central Asian governments does not end.

Political reform is not on the agenda of the SCO. But the stability that the organization has brought to the region could easily be the victim of an internal crisis in one of its member states, then spreading on to its neighbors. The exaggeration of anti-american and anti-western sentiments is nothing but an excuse to avoid the deeper issues at hand in Central Asia.

It is now up to Europe and America to come up with good, long-term strategies that recognize the grave importance of political change in Central Asia, and the possibilities that the SCO presents to achieve that change.

Safe Democracy would like to invite you to subscribe to the weekly electronic newsletter, with analysis and commentaries from our international experts (click here).