Shanghai group meets for expansion without Ahmadinejad

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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where Russia and China call the shots, gathered Friday to consider changes to its membership guidelines which could lead to further expansion for the bloc.

At its annual gathering in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, leaders including Russia's Dmitry Medvedev and China's Hu Jintao were expected to adopt new guidelines seen as potentially opening the door to SCO observer nations India and Pakistan.

But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leader of another SCO observer nation, Iran, was expected to stay away from the summit after his country was slapped with fresh sanctions approved by the UN Security Council this week.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the guidelines to be approved Friday would not allow countries under UN sanctions to obtain membership, a major blow to Iran who sorely needs international support.

"Tomorrow (Friday) a provision will be approved," Lavrov told reporters, when asked to confirm that under soon-to-be-adopted rules, a nation seeking SCO membership could not be under UN sanctions.

"Among membership criteria, will be the one you've mentioned," Lavrov said late Thursday, without referring to Iran directly.

Russia's Kommersant newspaper reported that the provision was pushed through by Moscow and Beijing who are unwilling to jeopardize their relations with the West because of Iran.

Despite close economic ties with the Islamic republic, Russia and China, two of the five UN Security Council veto-wielding permanent members, this week supported a new round of UN sanctions against Iran.

The Kommersant report, citing diplomatic sources in SCO member countries, said Ahmadinejad had wanted an invitation to the event, but Russia, China and Kazakhstan, the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, had "politely denied" it.

By contrast, Ahmadinejad was warmly greeted at the SCO annual summit in Russia last June, which he chose for his first foreign trip following his disputed re-election victory last year.

Senior Russian officials have denied Moscow had asked the Iranian leader to stay away this time.

Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov were also in attendance at the summit.

Analysts said approving the new membership guidelines would not immediately bring in new SCO members since observer nations like India and Pakistan have testy ties and China has not yet signalled its support for the group's expansion.

A Chinese diplomat, Zhang Xiao, said the blueprint to be adopted Friday was just the start of work in this direction.

"In fact, approving this document does not automatically mean the expansion of the SCO," said Zhang, deputy director-general for European and Central Asian affairs at China's foreign ministry.

"In order to accept new member states SCO members have to work out a range of new documents. In other words the job already done represents only one percent, we have another 99 percent to do."

Poor security in Afghanistan and ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan will also likely weigh against the group's immediate expansion, analysts said.

Early Friday, Kyrgyzstan saw a new flare-up of violence that left at least 14 people dead and more than 100 wounded, in the latest unrest since an uprising toppled president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April.

The SCO was set up in 2001 as a security counterweight to NATO that would allow Russia and China to rival US influence in Asia.

Increasingly, it is also looking to cooperate at an economic level.

© 2010 AFP

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