Authoritarian world leaders including President Putin of Russia and President Xi of China will gather this week in Central Asia for the annual summit of an obscure organisation which has attracted little global attention since its founding in 1996.
That is about to change, for the Shanghai Co-Operation Organisation (SCO) is poised to take a bold step. In a development certain to irritate Washington, it is granting membership to Iran, a country regarded in America as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The triumphalism of the post-Cold War era in the West, when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history,” and the victory of liberal democracy seems a distant memory. Today the geopolitical order is in flux, war is raging in Europe and China’s new-look “autocrats club” may offer a first glimpse of an emerging anti-Western world order.
After years of relative obscurity the SCO is suddenly fashionable, judging by the waiting list to get in: in addition to Iran, Belarus, another pariah, is likely to be upgraded soon from “observer state” to full member. Turkey, a NATO member, is also said to be weighing up an application – it is at present one of the SCO’s “dialogue partners”
Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president, is known as the “butcher of Tehran” for his role in overseeing the execution of 30,000 dissident prisoners in 1988
“It started off as a loose grouping that did little more than allow its members to chat,” said Charles Kupchan, professor of international relations at Georgetown University in the US. “Now it’s gaining members and increasing in size, beginning to emerge as an institution of greater capacity and weight.
The group is described by some western observers as a “dictators’ club” intent on erasing western influence from the Eurasian heartland. However, it may have even grander ambitions.
Besides China and Russia, the group includes India and five “stans” — Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Their leaders will meet on Thursday in the ancient Uzbek city of Samarkand on the old “Silk Road” trade route where the 19th-century British and Russian empires competed for domination over Afghanistan and other central Asian territories.
That battle for influence came to be known as the “Great Game”, a term coined by a British intelligence officer and explorer, Arthur Conolly, who was beheaded as a spy in a public square in Bukhara, 200 miles west of Samarkand, in 1842. Britain and America’s more recent humiliation over the fall of Kabul last year will have encouraged the SCO, which counts Afghanistan as another observer state.
The International Federation for Human Rights has described it as a “vehicle for human rights violations” and other critics see it as an alliance of convenience among strongmen who share a loathing of the West and its liberal social values as well as a desire to fight “terrorists, extremists and separatists”. The leaders tend to define these, sweepingly, as “anyone plotting against the state”, said Raffaello Pantucci, of the Royal United Services Institute and author of Sinostan, a book about China’s rise in Eurasia.
Enforcing the organisation’s anti-terrorism policies is the SCO’s infamous Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure, based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. With its unfortunate acronym (RATS), it keeps a database of names of “terrorists” from across members states, making it difficult for political activists wanted in one country to seek refuge in another.
These are countries known for their brutal suppression of dissent: Putin’s political opponents are dead, imprisoned or exiled and he is accused of slaughtering civilians in Ukraine. Xi, for his part, is accused of ethnic cleansing of Uighurs in the northwestern autonomous region of Xinjiang.
But the organisation does not pass judgment on members: “It’s a place where anti-democrats can survive and show they have international support,” Pantucci said.
Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president, will fit right in. He is known as the “butcher of Tehran” for his role in overseeing a “death committee” that ordered the execution of 30,000 dissident prisoners in 1988.
Tehran’s membership was blocked years ago by China for fear it would antagonise the US. More recently, though, relations between Washington and Beijing have deteriorated to such an extent that “China may think it has nothing to lose,” said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group.
Putin has for some time been cultivating a relationship with Iran. He once likened the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to Jesus Christ and on another visit to Tehran delivered a special gift to him: one of the world’s oldest editions of the Koran. “He may have whispered in Xi’s ear, ‘It’s time to let the Iranians into the SCO,” Kupchan said.
Whatever the case, Gavriil Popov, a Russian MP, has referred to the new Russian-Iranian partnership as an “axis of good” — a mocking reference to the former US president George W Bush’s description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea in 2002 as an “axis of evil”.
The two countries have a long and complicated history and differences remain: Russia does not share Iran’s hostility towards Israel and it does not want a nuclear-armed Iran. However, the relationship is flourishing, particularly among the security elites of both countries.
“There’s a mutual mafia culture, they share a conspiratorial world view, a mutual loathing of the west,” said Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
In the wake of Putin’s last visit to Tehran in June, Iran has begun supplying drones for use by Russian forces against Ukraine. More significantly, however, according to Ansari, is how “Putin appears to have fully absorbed the ideological talking points of Tehran — a healthy dose of Anglophobia, talk of ‘resistance’, the toxic consequences of Western culture, and the need for society to ‘self-purify’.”
He added: “Far from tolerating, containing and occasionally harnessing the idiosyncrasies of Iranian revolutionary ideology, the Russian leadership appears to share it, including an alarming sense of mission for a Mother Russia that is increasingly regarded as holy.”
Cut off by western partners over his invasion of Ukraine, Putin is desperate to make new friends. According to the CIA, he has even done a deal to buy ammunition from North Korea.
The new entente with China is critical.
Last week Beijing participated with troops, aircraft and warships in joint military manoeuvres with Russia in the country’s far east.
Xi has also agreed to meet Putin on the sidelines of the Samarkand summit on Thursday on his first trip outside China since the pandemic. It is certain that they will be discussing more than alternative railway routes through central Asia to Europe, said to be one of the top items on the SCO summit agenda.
Can they build this “Nato of the East”, as some diplomats jokingly call it, into an alternative world order?
As with Russia and Iran, Russia and China are historic antagonists and rivals for influence in Central Asia. Their present proximity stems only from Putin’s efforts to avoid isolation over Ukraine. As for India, it wants to be a “swing player, it doesn’t want to choose sides . . . we’re seeing multiple countries try to pull off that balancing act”, Kupchan, a former adviser to ex-President Barack Obama, said.
The four Central Asian members, meanwhile, are anxious that Putin might one day do to them what he did to Ukraine; and such fissures, in the end, may conspire against the SCO being anything more than an “autocrats’ club” whose members’ interests occasionally coincide. There is no suggestion yet of the SCO evolving into a military alliance.
“Washington is very concerned about an autocratic rival bloc co-anchored by Beijing and Moscow,” Kupchan said. “But will the SCO be that rival? Is it a group that will emerge as a counterweight to the West? I don’t think we’re there yet.
“I don’t see sufficient consensus between Russia and China to articulate norms and rules that one could call an alternative order. But the growth of this organization and the relationship between Beijing and Moscow are clear indicators that we’re heading towards a hybrid world order of multiple groupings and with different approaches to governance. We’re seeing the outlines of it.”
Much may depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine where, in addition to everything else being fought for, the vigour of western democracy is at stake. “The regime type on the upswing at any given time tends to be the country that’s been the winner of the last great war,” said Jack Snyder, a political scientist at Columbia University in the US. “Your regime type gets a boost. People look to your model. They say, ‘That’s what works. Why don’t we try that too.’”