Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted regional leaders at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on July 10, a second day of meetings meant to show the West that Moscow has friends and influence elsewhere at a time when ties with the United States and EU are tense.
Putin criticized the NATO-led military contingent that ended its mission in Afghanistan last year during the meeting of the SCO, which brings together Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
He announced that the grouping was turning a new page as "the process of including Pakistan and India into the organization is being launched."
SCO leaders signed a document starting the procedure of accession for India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed South Asian rivals that currently have observer status in the SCO. Iran, Mongolia, and Afghanistan also have observer status.
Wrapping up the one-day summit, the leaders also signed a declaration on the results of the gathering, in which they reiterated their readiness to continue working on creation of a Development Bank and Development Fund within the SCO and supported China's proposal to create a Silk Road economic belt across the SCO member-states.
The document also called for establishing peace in Ukraine through implementation of the Minsk agreement, a February deal on a cease-fire and steps toward a political solution to the conflict between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.
Putin said the SCO members had agreed to add Belarus to the list of observer states and that "Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, and Nepal are joining the SCO family as dialogue partners."
Putin has used the SCO and other regional groupings in an effort to increase Russia's clout in the former Soviet Union and beyond and establish counterweights to the European Union and NATO.
The summit in Ufa, capital of Russia's Bashkortostan region, came a day after a summit of the BRICS group of emerging economies -- Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa -- in the same city.
Putin told the SCO meeting that a priority is maintaining security within member states and along their borders. He expressed concern over the situation in Afghanistan -- which borders Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China -- and said that illegal drug production and the influence of militants associated with the extremist group Islamic State (IS) is increasing.
The presence of the international military contingent that entered Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States "did not substantially improve the situation there," Putin said in a dig at Washington and NATO.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also stressed the importance of assisting Afghanistan in strengthening security.
"We have to play a bigger role in the process of national reconciliation and economic restoration in Afghanistan," Xi said.
The SCO is dominated by China and Russia, which are vying for influence in Central Asia even as they draw closer amid severe tension between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.
Xi said that the accession of other countries such as India and Pakistan would boost cooperation within the group.
He proposed simplified visa issuance for Chinese tourists visiting SCO member-states.
"We are ready to share China's enormous tourism opportunities with all SCO member states. We hope that simplified visa issuance procedures will be introduced for Chinese tourists," Xi said.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev called on member states to expedite creation of a Development Bank within the organization.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon expressed his hope that joint measures to stand against illegal drug trafficking across the SCO member-states would intensify.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who heads the most populous Central Asian state and has often displayed wariness about Russian influence -- called on his counterparts not to turn the SCO into a "military and political alliance."
Karimov said it is necessary "to rule out any kind of bloc mentality and not turn the SCO into a military and political alliance," Karimov said, adding that the group's "immutable course that rules out any activities against other countries must be preserved and strengthened."
Karimov said the next SCO summit will be held in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in September 2016.
With reporting by TASS, RIA and Interfax
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