We met with Vitaly Vorobyov, SCO Advisor and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, to discuss the potential of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in resolving problems of regional security, its role in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of ISAF, the Silk Way project initiated by China, Russia's future SCO presidency and many other issues.
Your Excellency, in your article "The SCO as the Growing Ruler of the Heartland: How to Bring Eurasia's Most Promising Organization to a New High", you paint the future of the SCO in fairly bright colors, in contrast to pundits who often criticize it for sluggish responses to security challenges in the region. Do such opinions arise from the absence of an effective crisis response mechanism?
The system for responding to crises works on two levels. The first reconciles the approaches of each side of the conflict, while the second is the understanding that the SCO is neither a military nor a political nor an economic alliance, and by no means aims to become one in the near future. The organization has developed measures for responding to crises that are purely political and diplomatic. In my view, these are not really effective.
In addition, political and diplomatic tools require refinement, and I would have made them more clear-cut and coherent. Crises vary in substance and need custom-made response mechanisms, which are unfortunately unavailable within the SCO. This is why the group still lacks such tools and why people call it slow-moving. I think something must be done about it.
The SCO appears somewhat ambivalent as far as Afghanistan is concerned . On the one hand, many documents have been signed , political consultations are underway , the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group was set up in 2005, and SCO members participate in international forums . But on the other hand, any sort of practical cooperation exists only on a bilateral basis. Is the organization ready to do its part in maintaining regional order after the coalition forces pull out of Afghanistan?
As for Afghanistan, people often differentiate between bilateral and the SCO-wide efforts. The Afghan problem is multifaceted, requiring a dependable and unrestrained combination of all measures, both bilateral and multilateral. The UN needs to remain the key coordinator, while the SCO is sure that it is neither able nor willing to act in its stead nor to take over the current mandates of international forces.
The organization will stay within its current niche in view of its coherent and unambiguous vision for Afghanistan. And everyone agrees since the political statements appear consistent and adapted to the current situation.
What is in store for Afghanistan after the ten-year-long international operation? Will we see a report on the missions accomplished?
Afghanistan has become a single-crop country. And the problem is quite complicated. It is a huge job to make farmers switch over from poppy to some other crops equally lucrative with a comparable labor input. There are also precursors, technologies and transportation – something the SCO is also devoting great attention. One must understand what the SCO could do as a collective organization, i.e. whether it should encourage bilateral or multilateral cooperation or develop its own projects, and what kind of monitoring it would use to maintain order. I don't think the SCO will hesitate to launch concrete programs.
In what way should Russia perceive the New Silk Way initiative? How do you assess the coexistence of the Silk Way and the Eurasian Union?
The Silk Way is still at the conceptual level, with a lot of apprehension involved – from speculations to practical matters. Nevertheless, it has a geopolitical dimension. Nobody in China remembers initiatives along the same dimensions that were suggested before. Beijing would like to the Silk Way to incorporate 35-40 countries. In the past, the Great Silk Way reached Scandinavia, the Black Sea, Western Europe and Iran. The new project is intended to also cover the Far East, so that it would eventually become a large-scale transcontinental project. How will it fit into other integration projects? Do you mean the Eurasian Union? But what about the European Union? The EU is pretty advanced in its integration drive, while the Eurasian Union is only beginning to take such steps. Before answering the question, we should ask the Chinese to provide some more specifics. The idea was partially borrowed from SCO documents, since the New Silk Way is the Shanghai spirit somewhat adjusted to the modern environment. In other words, Beijing perceives the Shanghai spirit not as an abstract concept but rather as an issue of its foreign policy.
In your 2012 article "ASEAN and Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Similar Trends and Tasks,"  you wrote that the two organizations could supplement each other without causing any harm to their independence. Have you noticed any signs of their practical engagement over the past 18 months?
When establishing the SCO, we devoted much attention to the practices of the ASEAN, an organization with a very attractive philosophy and makeup. And when the ASEAN was developing its charter, they just took up our finished documents. It means that the two already interact. The ASEAN has accumulated a large amount of experience in security and preventive diplomacy that could be borrowed for resolving issues in Afghanistan. Moreover, the ASEAN uses very appealing formats, for example, the ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3 and ASEAN+6. Russia, China and India also cooperate with ASEAN, drawing parallels for cooperation that is also part of the SCO agenda. And we do plan to work hard in this area.
In September 2014, Russia will take over the SCO presidency. China already presides over the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia. Could these moves open opportunities for cooperation between the two bodies?
The legal base for cooperation can be found in the recently signed memorandum, while the current roles of Moscow and Beijing in the SCO and the Conference should also speed up its implementation for the good of both organizations. The proposals made by Chairman Xi Jinping on his vision of the presidency largely repeat the approaches taken by the SCO, while some of the SCO practices have been taken up by the Conference.
How do you see the SCO's long-term strategy? Will it incorporate new members that might slow down integration efforts due to differences in the national interests of potential candidates, or does it involve the development of coordinated approaches between the existing member states?
At this stage, OR is hardly relevant, while BOTH…AND should work. And the latter appears to offer the most productive approach, because no expansion appears plausible without internal consolidation and no expansion may take place to the detriment of the founding states. On the other hand, it appears strange that the SCO is not admitting new members. Other countries are applying but are receiving the cold shoulder. At a certain time, a tacit moratorium was put in place. During this period, the organization has acquired six observer states and three partner states, with eleven more in line. Some want greater status, and some want in.
We are finishing the admittance procedures. In order to become a member, an applicant state should first undergo a series of negotiations, then take up certain obligations and join some agreements that will also be ratified. No formal barriers to expansion are in place, but the process is time-consuming and requires strong intentions.
1. Konarovsky M.A. Afghanistan in the SCO Political Assessments and Practical Activities // Foreign Policy, 2013.
2. Documents pertaining to the situation in Afghanistan include: Joint SCO-Kabul Statement on Fighting Terrorism, Illegal Drug Trade and Organized Crime (2009); Counter-Narcotics Strategy of the SCO for 2011-2016; Memorandum of Understanding between the SCO and UN Office on Drugs and Crime (2011); Protocol on Cooperation between the Regional Counterterrorism Structure and UN Office on Drugs and Crime and its Regional Office; The SCO Agreement on the Regional Counterterrorism Structure (2013).
3. Beginning in 2009, periodical political consultations have been held on regional security with the participation of observer states and partners.
4. The Istanbul Process (2011); Regional Economic Cooperation Conference for Afghanistan (Dushanbe 2012; Istanbul 2011; Islamabad 2009; New Delhi 2006; and Kabul 2005).
5. Vorobyov V.Ya. ASEAN and Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Similar Trends and Missions// Jakarta Post, 2012.