Leaders of Russia and five other former Soviet republics ended a two-day meeting in Yerevan on Friday with a pledge to deepen their defense links primarily aimed at combating what they termed "international terrorism and extremism." The presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan -- the signatories of the Collective Security Treaty (CST) -- vowed joint efforts to ward off the perceived threat posed by radical Islamic groups in Central Asia. The members of the defense grouping
gave their final go-ahead to the formation of a Russian-led "rapid reaction force" to be headquartered in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.
"We express serious concern at...the growing threat from international terrorism and extremism, which is acquiring a clearly defined transnational and coordinated nature," the six president, including Russia's Vladimir Putin, declared in a joint statement at the end of the summit. "We will continue to jointly fight back attempts to disrupt peace and calm in Central Asia." The rapid reaction force to be formed "very soon" will be central to
the effort, the statement added.
Russia and its Central Asian allies have repeatedly accused the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan of giving financial and logistical support to Islamic fundamentalists challenging the ruling regimes in the region. Moscow frequently refers to the alleged Islamist threat to justify its military campaign in its breakaway republic of Chechnya.
President Robert Kocharian said, opening the summit earlier in the day, that participation in the treaty is "one of the most important components of the security system of our state." He said the defense grouping plays a "stabilizing role" in the volatile South Caucasus.
Neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia withdrew from the CST last year, however, saying that the post-Soviet security framework proved ineffective and is in fact used by Russia to restore its hegemony in the region. The two states have instead been seeking closer ties with NATO and do not rule out eventually applying for membership in the alliance.
Armenia, which will not be involved in the Central Asian force, has
underscored its commitment to the CST with the readiness to form a joint military contingent with Russian troops stationed on its territory. Putin said in Yerevan that the creation of the Russian-Armenian army unit will be "the next step" within the CST framework. But he did not specify when the final decision on the joint force will be taken.