'Russian NATO' kicks off military manoeuvres
The presidents of five former Soviet states met Friday to view military manoeuvres by a Russia-led security grouping touted as a counterweight to NATO but plagued by internal tensions, AFP reported.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sat sheltered from the early morning cold with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to observe drills by the Collective Security Treaty Organization's first rapid reaction force.
But neither Presidents Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus nor Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan -- the other CSTO leaders who both opposed the creation of the force -- attended, underscoring divisions within the Kremlin-dominated body.
The authoritarian but increasingly Western-leaning Lukashenko refused to show up at the June 14 meeting in Moscow to sign the document establishing the NATO-style rapid reaction force amid a trade dispute between the neighbours.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan's strongman Karimov has bristled at Russian plans to establish a military base in southern Kyrgyzstan near their restive shared border, plunging relations to lows not seen in a decade.
The Kremlin said in a press release that Belarus had signalled its willingness to sign onto the agreement despite Lukashenko's absence, while Uzbekistan "had reserved the right to join the agreement later."
CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha told Russian television on Thursday that the new Collective Operational Reaction Forces (CORF) were designed to combat terrorist seiges such as the Mumbai attacks in 2008.
But new formation, which contains military and disaster control contingents from the five signatory states, is a clear bid to rival the Western military alliance NATO's own joint operations.
It is also seen as a move by Moscow to bolster its sway in the strategic region.
Russia has been nervously eyeing increasingly independent behaviour by several states in Central Asia, as both Moscow and Washington jostle for influence in a region close to the battleground of Afghanistan.